Healthy Inside and Out: An Environmental Approach to Weight Loss

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute.

Fruit in a bowl on counter
Research has shown that you truly are a product of your environment.  Surroundings have become flooded with fast food, drive-throughs, and sedentary activities both at work and home.  These sights and behaviors are the norm of everyday living but rarely get much attention.  Whether or not you give it much thought, they are constant cues which promote overeating and physical inactivity.  As a creature of habit, you participate in these behaviors and they become your routine.  For example, what is your first reaction when you see a candy bowl? By nature, or nurture, we want to reach in for a piece.  Even worse, the urge is greater if the candy bowl is at your own desk and always in sight.  It’s highly likely that at least some candy will be missing by the end of the day, right?  These reactions are a product of internal automatic processes which have been cultivated by your environment. Your surroundings are a powerful predictor of weight loss and healthy habits whether you realize it or not.

Scientists believe there are two memory systems at work when it comes to integrating environmental stimuli; impulsive and reflective.  The impulse system is constantly aware of everything you experience throughout the day.  This system then makes associations from what it’s learned.  The more limited reflective system uses language and logic to learn and memorize. This requires more of an effort.  Both systems want to be the one in action, but it is the automatic impulsive system that tends to have the upper edge.  Because it’s powerful and constantly working, it has the ability to make strong associations between the environment and behaviors, goals, desires, etc.1   So, for example, seeing your tennis shoes by the door every morning becomes linked in memory to the desire to exercise and can activate the behavior.

Since the environment you create can have a large impact on daily choices, it shows that controlling your surroundings is vital to successful behavior change.  Whether it be small or large changes, the environment should cue healthy behaviors and limit the availability of unhealthy cues.  A recent 14-week study showed that making health-conscious alterations to the environment, creating healthy habits and limiting unhealthy behaviors can result in weight loss and maintenance.1   Altering your environment can make achieving your nutrition or weight loss goals easier. Try a few of these easy changes:

  • Place your tennis shoes or a piece of exercise equipment so you can see it daily.
  • Keep fruits and vegetables out on the counter in a bowl.
  • Hide the temptations (candy, chocolate, ice cream) in the back of the pantry or freezer.  Better yet, get rid of them completely and only eat if when you make a conscious decision.  This makes giving into temptation more of an effort.
  • Keep a scale in the bathroom.
  • Buy a healthy cookbook to display in the kitchen.
  • Keep the T V off while you’re at home.  It’s easy to become tempted to watch and lose track of time.
  • If you do watch TV, keep a set of dumbbells nearby to remind yourself to exercise during commercials.  Try a few sets of bicep curls, tricep extensions or forgo the weights and do sit-ups or push-ups.

Don’t underestimate the importance of initiating the habit.  In order to make the associations and see healthy results, you must begin to control your environment until the behavior changes become automatic.  The environmental cues we create help fuel the process.  In the words of Dr. Kenneth Cooper, “fitness is a journey, not a destination.”  It’s the effort along the way that makes the destination attainable.

Please share more positive environmental changes that have worked for you on our facebook page or in the comment section here on this page! We’re always open to healthy suggestions.

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