Norm: “Something that is usual, typical, or standard. A standard or pattern, esp. of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.”
As a nutritionist and fitness enthusiast, I am always striving to embrace a healthy lifestyle and make nutritious choices (bring on the Brussels sprouts baby, woohoo!). But through my work with clients, general observations, and from my own personal experiences, I have come to appreciate the fact that putting a “healthy lifestyle” into everyday practice is no easy task. It is a true daily challenge (albeit, an ultimately rewarding one).
I believe a big reason why eating well and exercising regularly is such a struggle for many has to do with what I call unhealthy norms. Healthy lifestyle practices are often at odds with typical or “normal” behavior in American society.
For example, as you are reading this right now, think about how long you have been sitting. An hour? 2 hours? 4 hours? Maybe 8 hours? It is far from uncommon for modern day office workers to sit at their desks for long intervals. Yet, recent research suggests that repeatedly sitting for extended periods can actually cut years off your life!
Below I discuss 3 of what I believe are the unhealthiest prevailing norms, followed by a few alternative strategies to help your overcome them. I hope at the very least, this article inspires you to become more aware of how the norms of American society may be antithetical to your health, so that you can take measures to live a healthy lifestyle on your own terms!
1. Sitting Pretty
Sitting for 6+ hours per day is pretty typical for a modern day office worker. But as I mentioned above, sitting for extended periods has seriously negative long-term consequences. Our bodies were just not made to sit for long periods of time.
Alternatives: Try and sneak in movement and/or standing whenever you can. If you work in an office and email is the traditional mode of communication, walk to a colleague’s desk and deliver your message in person instead. Organize lunchtime walks with one or a few colleagues. Hit up the gym on your lunch break. Walk to do your errands after work instead of driving. Stand on the subway/train instead of sitting. Set an alarm to stand and move every hour. Finally, try using a pedometer to track your steps and help keep you motivated — like BRIT!
What do you think of when you think “traditional American meal?” Probably something along the lines of a big hunk of meat, maybe with a small salad, side of potatoes and a starch. Research shows that the amount of meat Americans eat is actually quite excessive compared to the amount we actually need, and over-consumption of meat has been linked to obesity and cancer. It is also financially and environmentally more costly than vegetarian protein sources.
Alternatives: Meat can be a great source of complete protein, heme iron, and vitamin B12, and I am not knocking it by any means. What I am suggesting, is re-framing the concept of the traditional portion size by thinking of meat as a condiment, rather than the main attraction of the meal. You may also want to try experimenting with other sources of protein too: beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan, low-fat dairy products, whole grains. I personally think they are just as tasty!
3. Office Temptations
Sweets are often included at meetings, and/or used as a symbol of celebration — between colleagues’ birthdays, holidays, an accomplishment in the department, etc. There is always an occasion to indulge in the workplace. But research suggests that the more occasions we have to eat, the more prone we are to taking in calories in excess of our needs.
Alternatives: Be reasonable. While you don’t necessarily want to be “that person” or skip an office celebration, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your health by putting junk into your body at every opportunity. Be secure in your choices (or refusals), and try and learn to become comfortable with saying “no, thank you.” Or, if you feel it would be impolite to refuse what is being offered, take the cupcake, and say you are going to save it for later because you are not hungry now. If you don’t want it later, chuck it. This is not wasteful in my mind – the junk is better off going into the garbage can than wreaking havoc in your body!