How to actually start getting healthier

Or at least, one part of getting healthier, which is having the right attitude to training your mammalian brain

Image: an image of cookies on the left, and an image of carrots on the right

Pop quiz, which of these is healthier?

In spite of failing wildly at lot of my aspirations, the one thing I think I’ve done really well in life is be healthy. Which is why I get people sometimes asking me how I do it. Usually they ask, “how do I lose weight?” Or something like that. It’s phrased different ways, but it’s always about “how” to be healthy.

The question is fundamentally flawed, though. It’s that “how” part. It indicates that the person asking thinks they would go out and get healthy if only they knew the correct way to do it. “If someone could just tell me what to do, I’d go do it and get the results I want.”

Which is not the case at all. You already know how to be healthy.

Which is healthier, some carrots or a chocolate chip cookie?

Obviously, the carrots are healthier. You know that. I mean, it’s not like there aren’t details to get into, but your health isn’t on the razor’s edge of success or failure depending on whether or not you got one more or less milligram of vitamin B12. Stay real.

The problem isn’t that you don’t understand better eating habits, the problem is that, cookies taste like cookies and carrots taste like a life without joy. You don’t want the carrots.

It’s the same issue with exercise. You know that it would be healthier to do a light jog around the block instead of continuing to sit there on the couch and let Netflix autoplay the next episode of whatever you’re currently binge watching. But you don’t want to get up. I don’t. Nobody does.

There’s always ads around for exercise routines that you’re going to actually do, because they’re so easy or take so little time or whatever. With only three minutes a day you can get the abs you’ve always wanted, or something like that. I’m sure you’ve seen that kind of thing around.

Here’s the thing, there is no such thing as an exercise that is so easy you couldn’t defeat it with your natural human laziness. Someone could invent an exercise that takes literally one second to do, and you’d be there on the couch thinking, meh, I’ll do that second of exercise after this next episode finishes. And you’ll keep thinking that as every episode passes by. You know it’s healthier to spend a second on your health, you feel like not moving.

When I say “you”, I mean all of us. I mean me. That part of you that is lazy and unmotivated, that’s in all of us. While there are times when I’m pretty psyched to work out, there are as much and maybe even more times when I’m like, do I have to? I grudgingly drag myself out of bed, or off the couch, or the floor, or wherever I’ve collapsed to contemplate the purpose of it all, and I do it, in spite of a lot of desire to do anything but exercise.

After all the decades I’ve been cultivating the habit of exercise and diet, I now exercise regularly, and I think some people around me assume that’s because I’m particularly motivated. I’m “into” exercising. I’m “that type” of person who exercises.

Meh. I’m definitely not the kind of person who loves exercise like it’s this wonderful thing I can’t wait to do every day. I think of exercise more like showering or brushing my teeth. It’s just something that I feel is a part of my life’s maintenance. Sometimes it’s enjoyable, and I almost always feel better after. But, most of the time I approach it with the same dispassionate compulsion that makes me brush my teeth. I don’t stop and ask myself if I want to brush my teeth, I just do it. In the back of my mind there’s a sort of fear that if I don’t do it, the long term consequences will be worse than going through the motions.

There are a lot of different branching paths to get to a full understanding of getting healthier, and one of those is looking at the question of why that part of you that wants to make unhealthy choices even exists. Looking at why you have a part of you that wants to eat a cookie when you “know” that carrots are better is a worthwhile thing to get into, because it can help you cope with the guilt and shame of bad choices.

But, for now, just accept that this part is there. It’s a part of you that’s more emotional, primal, and hard wired into you. It’s that mammalian, monkey brain that never went away just because humans developed civilization. Everything we know in words was built on top of that monkey brain, not in place of it. And, under that monkey brain is an even more primal lizard brain, the one that forces involuntary decisions, like pulling your hand away reflexively if someone jabbed your finger with a pin.

So you have animal impulses inside of you. How do you use that information to help you?

You may not have ever trained a dog to do anything before, but, I think the process is intuitive enough for most people to get the broad outlines of what might work and what might not. For example, let’s say you wanted to teach your dog to “shake a paw”. Hold up it’s paw on command so you can shake it like you’d shake a person’s hand.

What definitely wouldn’t work is sitting down across from your dog and explaining to it the meaning of greetings and why humans do it and the benefits of how maybe your dog might get a treat for doing it. Your dog doesn’t speak language and doesn’t have much, if any, capacity for rational thought. Your dog would simply sit there waiting for you to stop making noises at it so that it could move on to something it wants to do, like having a treat, or taking a nap, or going to the park.

You’re making the same mistake when you are trying to learn about exercise or diet in order to do it. You can read all you want about “high intensity interval training” or what kind of carbs are good and which are bad, and all of that will just sit there as information inside your rational sapien brain.

Late at night, when you have a craving and go get a snack, that sapien brain that knows everything is not what’s driving you. When you don’t want to go through all the bother of putting on running shoes and go outside to run, no amount of knowing it would be better for you will help. In those moments, it’s that animal part of you that is does what it wants, not in spite of your higher understanding, just without too much regard for it.

In order to train yourself to be more in the habit of actually doing the things that you think you should do, you have to think of training your mammalian self to do them, kind of like training a dog. Your mammalian brain doesn’t speak words, so you have to try and coax it into the right behaviours, not with more options and analysis.

The dog analogy is a little tricky though, because you may perceive your dog as being enthusiastic about going for walks and playing fetch and other activities. You may look at your dog and wonder why it seems to want to exercise when you don’t. There are key differences. Consider that your dog, if, for example, you’re one of many people who go to work during the day and leave your dog at home, may be spending hours and hours alone or without the freedom to go outside while you’re at work. They don’t have games or books or anything to occupy whatever limited thinking they have. You might be bouncing off the walls and ready to go chase squirrels if it was damn near the only engaging activity you had in life. If a dog could be hooked up to a special canine VR world where it didn’t have to actually run but could just play an immersive video game about running, there’s no doubt in my mind it would.

One analogy I’ve heard that might get closer to the situation in your brain is that of a man riding an elephant. The man is your intellectual self, the elephant is your emotions. This analogy is particularly good because it emphasizes the scale of relative influence on your actions. Your emotional self has way more say in your actions than your knowledge. You experience that every single time you choose a cookie when you know, you know, that it’s bad for you.

Elephants can be trained to do all sorts of stuff, although, really they shouldn’t be, because they should be left alone to just do their own elephant stuff and I don’t think it’s cool at all that elephants get trained by anyone to do anything. Putting aside the ethical problem though, for good or bad, we know elephants can be trained. But they can’t be trained by explaining stuff to them. They don’t understand your words anymore than your dog did. And, more than your dog, you, as an individual unarmed human, can’t physically push an elephant around and force it to do what you want. So how do you train an elephant? How do you train the mammal inside of you?

Your intellectual brain only has a couple advantages over your mammal brain. It can perceive time and understands deferment of rewards. Patience and positive reinforcement are the keys.

Think about you sitting there on the couch thinking you should go for a quick jog, but you just don’t want to. Now imagine it’s an elephant on the couch. How are you going to coax it to move?

One thing you definitely shouldn’t do is sit there blaming the elephant and getting mad at it. Yelling at that elephant, that only makes the elephant feel like everything happening is a shitty deal no matter which way it goes. Sit and get yelled at or have to go do things it doesn’t want to do. That’s what you’re doing to yourself when you sit there calling yourself lazy or stupid or worthless for not doing what you know you should do.

It’s not will power. Will power is bullshit. I could go into a whole thing about how I think the very concept of “will power” is just a total fucking lie. It’s basically trying to make it so one part of your brain is yelling at another part of your brain to get on and really, really do whatever it is you’re trying to convince yourself to do. “Will power,” as a concept, only leads to internal judgmentalism about yourself. Forget will power.

Always coax yourself to get off the couch or do what you are trying to do with positive affirmation. And understand that, just like training an elephant, it doesn’t happen in one go. That’s the expectation you have if you idolize your rational self. If you could just fully understand the situation, then you would know what to do and you would do it. Not at all. Your inner emotional self does not work like that.

Your inner emotional self works by being coaxed into going just a little in the direction you want to go, and seeing it doesn’t involve as much suffering as it feared, and then next time going a little further. But not consistently, some days will be less than others, even reversals, depending on all sorts of circumstances. Especially at the beginning, there will be times when it doesn’t work at all and you can’t convince yourself to get off the couch. Even in those times, you can’t break down and start beating yourself up. Just try again tomorrow. The over all trend, though, is to slowly arc towards doing a thing out of habit, not because your mammalian brain “wants” to, but simply because it assumes it’s just part of the routine of life.

That’s how your intellectual self can get your mammalian self to eventually start doing the things you know you should be doing. Patience. Time. Incremental steps. Steps so small that the change from one to the next is barely measurable. Each small step is normalizing a reality for your mammalian brain so that it doesn’t do what it wants to do, it does what it thinks is normal to do.

That’s the underlying principle of how you train yourself to actually do things. Stop worrying about what the perfect workout is, or the perfect diet. Don’t research a thing and then make a promise that from tomorrow you’ll start for real this time and do it right. Those are about knowledge and planning, and they don’t matter to your emotional brain.

What kind of positive coaxing you say to yourself in your mind is up to you, because we’re all different. I don’t know you, you know you, so it has to be you who thinks about what kind of emotional context is the training you need. Just like if you were training dogs, or elephants, they don’t all respond exactly the same way to the exact same program. Experiment, try things out. Just keep it positive and keep recognizing that you are negotiating with a non verbal animal that needs encouragement.

And this is where patience is key. If you’re under stress to work out because you want to fit into a dress in two weeks or whatever, then that’s a different kind of problem to solve, and personally, I think it’s not worth solving. Another branch of thinking about health is about self acceptance, but that’s a whole road to go down another time.

The point for now is just that real health isn’t about a singular moment in your life where you have a particular aesthetic you want. It’s about living your whole life by constantly arcing towards better choices. You need that patience to consistently make incremental steps, no matter how small, going in the right way. Recognize that you are not trying to hit one goal weight, one perfect aesthetic look, or anything like that. You are trying to create an identity as a moving, thriving being that is always arcing towards healthy choices for your whole life. Results will ensue.

However you look at it, whether you like a dog analogy or an elephant or a monkey or something else, the point is to stop looking at health as a matter of knowing the right things. You know enough already, and you can work out more specific details as you build habits. Getting yourself to act on your knowledge isn’t about depth of understanding, it’s about training an emotional being, over time. Slow, incremental, positive steps.

Actionable item

Ever gone to a movie and ate popcorn… because you were at a movie? Were you hungry and thought you really needed the popcorn? Or is the mouth entertainment of eating popcorn just built into your expectation of what it means to be at a movie?

That’s trained eating. It feels natural because you’ve allowed yourself over time to associate one action with another. You were trained by culture, and social situations, and circumstances. The animal inside you isn’t configured at birth to assume popcorn and movies go together, you let yourself be trained like an elephant, or dog, or monkey, or whatever.

Think of all the trained eating you do. Like many people, you probably eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at certain expected times, and so you eat without really considering if you feel hunger. You probably snack when you’re at a party, you associate cake and deserts with celebrations, you have certain foods you usually eat with certain people. I have friends I play hockey with, and they almost always have a beer after hockey, because they just played hockey.

Like you, and everyone, I learned to eat certain things at certain times without ever really evaluating how much those habits and choices led to the goals I wanted. There’s a certain amount of irony with everything I said above about how you need to learn to train yourself, because the fact is that you were letting yourself, your mammalian self, be trained all your life. You just had no plan for any of it, and no clear source on who exactly was in charge of the training. Society, culture, and circumstances have been your trainers, not you.

Now you are in charge. You need to break that unconscious training, and start training your inner mammal with conscious choices that are inline with your higher sapien brain’s goals of long term healthy living.

I’m not saying that you should get militant about it. Eating has a social function, and I think any diet that makes you hate your life is stupid. Not all trained eating is bad. You might work regular hours where lunch time is fixed, and there’s no real upside in going against that.

It’s a matter of balance between your health goals, social goals, and happiness goals, all of which are valid, and put into a context of your particular circumstances. Wouldn’t you like to feel like when you were eating for fun that it was an acceptable treat, and not just part of an overall pattern of unconscious acceptance of patterns that aren’t helping you?

If anything of what I’ve written above has resonated with you, then here’s a thing to try doing now and again. Stop eating, and don’t eat again until your stomach literally growls. Do this as soon as you can, don’t wait for a “perfect” time, whatever that might even be, to start this experiment.

Put aside any expectation of when and why to eat, make it a commitment to only eat when your stomach, not your brain or your heart or anywhere else, is saying you should eat.

The point of this exercise is to get in touch with your body and listen to its feedback, and along the way get some insight into how much you’re eating that you don’t need to. In terms of my sapien brain versus mammal brain analogy, you’re bringing your lizard brain into the picture. It’s your lizard brain that runs the completely involuntary reactions you have, like recoiling from pain or sweating and that kind of thing. Genuine hunger is involuntary.

I wouldn’t recommend that you live a whole life only eating when your stomach growls. You’re not a lizard and shouldn’t live like one. No one part of your brain should be subservient to any other part. What you want is your whole brain, your whole body, working together, as a team with every part of it in agreement on the goals.

Also, it should be noted that our bodies are built for defending against scarcity, which means we have all sorts of automatic warning and protection systems that kick in if we don’t eat enough. Do this too frequently, and your body might think you’re actually in trouble and there can be physical and psychological effects, none of which I think are worth confronting.

So what I’m recommending that you just do this every now and again, to check in on what the lizard brain thinks is time to eat, just to get some perspective on how your body perceives hunger when the mammalian brain is told to be quiet. You can only start to get your whole body and brain into alignment when you know what each part is trying to tell you. I do this maybe once every three months or so, usually if I feel like I’ve kind of been eating a lot recently. Note that I never do it as a punishment for feeling like I’ve over eaten, though. It’s just a way of resetting, getting back on track.

When you do this, and you come to a point when you feel real, stomach growling hunger, then eat, and hopefully something on the healthy side. I’m not a fan of fasting, insofar as it means not eating even when your body is indicating you should. I think that’s getting into a fight with your body, and that’s just as bad as the myth of will power. I think that if you’re genuinely hungry, you should always eat. The key, and whole point of this exercise, is understanding the difference between genuine hunger and habitual, or trained, hunger.

When you start to focus on that difference between eating for actual hunger or for emotional, habitual, or other hunger, you will gain some perspective on the eating habits you have. You’ll start to see more clearly what kind of training you’ve been giving your mammalian brain by default.

Be warned, though, that this has a high potential to set yourself for some serious introspection, some of which might be difficult to confront. Because when you’re in a situation of feeling like you want to, or “should” eat, when you know that you’re not really hungry, you’re almost certainly going to ask “why”. Why do you want to eat right now if there’s no particular reason for it?

It may be that you’re at work and it’s lunch time and if you don’t eat now you’ll definitely be hungry in the middle of your shift later. Fair enough. But, if it’s late and night and you’re standing in front of the fridge looking for something to eat even though there’s nothing in your body saying you’re genuinely hungry, then the reasons are probably something much more emotional.

In my personal case, I found I often indulged in binge eating as a way of coping with a sense of loneliness. In order to defeat part of my unhealthy eating habits, I had to confront real psychological reasons behind a void I was trying to fill.

The times you eat when maybe you shouldn’t, and the choices of what to eat, will be entirely unique to you, and only you can fight your demons. Knowing when you’re genuinely hungry will help you figure out where the battles need to be fought, and then it’s up to you to fight them.