Living healthy is simple, but not easy

Lt. Col. Erin Cook official photo

Lt. Col. Erin Cook official photo

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “If you do what’s hard, your life will be easy.  If you do what’s easy, your life will be hard,” said Les Brown.

Over my years as a leader and executive director of a wellness company, I’ve been saddened by how many people I meet who struggle with their health, weight or their fitness.  I think we all want to be healthier in general.  My experience and research supports the idea that achieving good health is simple, but it’s not easy.

For most people, good health can be achieved by the simple tasks of eating real food and moving your body.  Good health isn’t exclusive to those who follow strict dietary rules or exercise regimes.  Health experts use the expression “healthy lifestyle” and that simply means making daily decisions and developing daily habits that improve health – which is hard.  

The food part can be confusing: people want to know exactly what foods are on the “OK” list. Sometimes people take a silver bullet approach and focus on just one area of nutrition, like a certain vitamin, herbal supplement or type of food.  The real answer is simple:  eat real food.  Make half your meal, every meal, fresh vegetables and fruits.  Avoid fast food and pre-packaged food.  Take my grandma’s no-nonsense approach to cooking, “If you can read, you can cook,” and start cooking for yourself, from scratch. It’s simple, but it isn’t always easy.   

The exercise part can be confusing too. In general, people just need to move – more.  You don’t have to be a marathoner or gym rat.  Walking, playing a sport, yardwork, and playing with your kids are all ways to move your body.  I recommend finding an activity you enjoy and do more of it.  If that activity gets your heart-rate up a bit, that’s even better.  Just move!

If the principles of good health are simple, why is achieving good health so hard?  First of all, we’re busy.  We have kids, jobs, activities and commitments that drain our time.  Let’s be honest: Cooking and exercise take time.  Next, we’re distracted.  Screens, screens, screens – need I say more?  

Finally, we are surrounded by temptation.  It seems like it’s always easier to make an unhealthy choice than to make a healthy one – oftentimes, we just do what’s easy, like roll through a drive-thru rather than cooking dinner ourselves. 

So how can we improve?  An effective and my favorite method of developing healthy habits is by making a series of small changes over time and sticking with them.  Eventually those small changes will add up to good health. Research shows us that people generally change in two ways: “catastrophic catalyst” or “slow and steady.”  A catastrophic catalyst is a major event that forces a person to change. For instance, a cancer diagnosis may act as a trigger for someone to dramatically change their lifestyle.  The gentler way to change is “slow and steady.” Using this method a person makes small changes over time that eventually add up to big changes.  Those big changes can lead to huge health gains.   

My first change was really small. My path to a healthier lifestyle started by changing my brand of peanut butter.  I went from one that had sugar and hydrogenated oils in it to one that was only ground peanuts.  I had many other unhealthy habits at the time, but I was able to commit to changing my peanut butter.  I remember standing in the store reading labels on jars of peanut butter, and then mentally committing to stirring the jar when the oil built up on top. 

That tiny change was a catalyst for big changes.  Through the years, I’ve added things like spinach smoothies, yoga and running.  I’ve removed things like fast food, beverages high in sugar, extra TV time and regularly putting in long hours at the office.  Over 15 years, those changes added up to a weight loss of 70 pounds, an excellent fitness test score and much more energy and happiness.

I challenge the members of the Travis community to plan to make a small change toward better health.  It’s simple: eat real food and move your body.  It’s hard: you have to commit to change your lifestyle, but you can take it one step at a time.