I have fantasized about it often. “Please come in Mrs. Nelson, have a seat. So, you’d like a new life? You want to transform? You want to feel good, every day? I can help you. We’re going to change your habits, the daily actions and behaviors that drive you automatically. It wont hurt a bit. I’m going to write a prescription for you. You don’t need to come back to see me – I know it will work!” Each time I woke from this fantasy, I found a real person sitting in my consulting room. Someone I really wanted to help. I believe its possible. Not easy, but possible, and science is our friend.
First, it is important to understand that we’re not going to be working on the outcome. The destination is BodyWHealth. The road there is to work on our daily actions and behaviors. You don’t drive from New York City to San Diego by dreaming of life at the Pacific Ocean. You get into your car, fill it with gas, plug an address into your GPS, and then in an automated, subliminal fashion you press the accelerator and brake pedals a million times. That’s how we have to get to BodyWHealth too. We’ve identified the things we need to do – 10,000 steps and count calories (Golden Rules #s 1 & 2). We’ve agreed on the mindset we need – no excuses (Golden Rule #3). Now, Golden Rule #4 will help us to ingrain the millions of automated steps. I call it the Rule of 7s. 7 days, 7 weeks, 7 months.
The first seven days are critical to break the inertia of the old. It’s like starting the road trip. Starting the engine is more work than keeping it going. But they’re crucial days. Good intentions wane quickly. If you started your 10,000 steps with a walk around the block (that’s a great start, by the way), you may find yourself saying “well, it’s so far to go, and it’s cold in the mornings now, so I’m going to skip tomorrow” … and the day after … and then you’re done. You could argue that the greatest gains are made by early repetition, so devote yourself with singular resolve to the first 7 days!
Then set your sights on the next milestone at 7 weeks. If you read on, I’ll explain the science behind this phase. The number is not cast in stone. Studies show variable time periods in which habits become entrenched, and missing a day or two does not send you back to the beginning. But it is a beautiful number, and during these 7 weeks, some crucial chemical and behavioral adaptations are taking place. Once you have practiced your good behaviors for 7 weeks, you’re well on your way towards fundamental life change.
After a healthy celebration on reaching the 7 week marker (read my blog on 5 top tips that inspire BodyWHealth), look toward the 7 month milestone. If you can maintain the discipline and enthusiasm to meet this next goal, then you will understand how to transform your life. You will have laid the tracks for enduring lifestyle modification, and have the physical foundations for BodyWHealth.
To appreciate the Rule of 7s, we need to understand the science that underlies habit. Not surprising, this is all controlled in our nerve center, the brain. Not at the cortical level – that’s the grey matter that helps us to think and reason – but much deeper, in areas known as the brain stem and dorsal ganglia. Here we find primitive circuits that regulate cravings. Two chemical systems are involved. The dopamine system evokes desire and motivation. It drives us to seeking and searching behavior. The other system is the opioid system. It evokes sensations of pleasure. To attain BodyWHealth, we want to activate dopamine desire circuits and reward them via the opioid system in a way that drives us to recurrent, automated WHealthy behavior (or habits).
You may have heard about the chemical endorphin. This is a natural opioid that is produced after exercise and makes us feel really good! But we don’t start craving it after our first bout of exercise. It takes a little while. The discipline of forcing ourselves to exercise for 7 days, then for 7 weeks allows our body to make the chemical changes necessary to activate this chemical reward system. We believe there are similar changes happening for other habits too (both good and bad, by the way). During this early period, chemical “sensitization” and “rewiring” happens. The result: as we progress, our dependence on “willpower” declines, and our body’s natural craving-reward cycle takes over. We have now engaged our physiological autopilot towards the BodyWHealth destination!
Psychosocial research into habit and behavioral change has identified a 3-step cycle. This is a self-reinforcing cycle that can be virtuous (good habits) or destructive (bad habits). The first step in the habit cycle is the activation of a trigger or cue. It precipitates the routine, or habitual behavior we are interested in (the second step). Finally, the routine is rewarded in step 3. Here is an example of this cycle at work. Mr. Nelson arrives home at the end of his day (trigger). He walks to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator and cracks open a beer (routine). He puts his feet up and relaxes as the alcohol calms him down (reward). Familiar? Now, imagine how we can turn this around, using the same underlying science! Mr Nelson arrives home at the end of his workday (same trigger). He greets his wife and walks to the bedroom to put on his exercise clothes (new routine). He adds 7,000 steps to the 3,000 he already achieved at work, flooding his blood with endorphins that make him relax and feel good (new, but similar reward). That’s the trick, and the purpose for the Rule of 7s! You use your willpower to boost yourself to the point where your body has installed the new circuitry. It’s beautiful!
If you’re starting your journey, re-starting after a break or boosting towards BodyWHealth, apply the Rule of 7s: 7 days, 7 weeks, 7 months.