A Healthy State of Mind

“Never mind.”

“I don’t mind.”

“He’s lost his mind.”

“Mind your P’s and Q’s.”

“It blew my mind.”

We talk about our minds without realizing it. Our minds, which can be thought of as our own personal expression of our brain, are more powerful than we realize.

If we consider our brain—the most amazing, complex and mysterious organ in our body—as the computer hardware, then we can consider the mind the software. It tells the brain what to do, how to act, when to engage. You are the master programmer of your brain, you get to decide what to tell your brain.

And, consider this: essentially every other major organ can be transplanted from a donor—except the brain. Therefore, the mind has a giant responsibility toward this most amazing organ.

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When we are driving through a school zone, the speed limit typically lowers 10 mph. This, of course, is to protect the children from speeding cars. This is, of course, a good idea. Without us—as drivers—realizing it, it brings our attention to the kids, right where it should be. It makes us mindful of the fact that kids aren’t always mindful before they act, and we need to exercise increased caution. Our focus zones in to where it should be: the children’s safety.

Having received a pricey speeding ticket in a school zone, however, I am here to say that this reduced speed limit announced with a flashing light makes us not only mindful of the children’s safety, it makes us mindful of just how much this would hurt our wallet if we were caught.

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“I am so careful when I eat popcorn now, ever since I broke my tooth on a hard kernel.”

“I watch my step so carefully now so that I don’t twist my ankle again when I am walking in unfamiliar places, especially at night.”

“I count out a certain number of chips and then close the bag. I ate an entire bag once without realizing it until it was gone.”

“I didn’t realize how much extra walking I could get in if I simply parked at the far end of parking lots. Those little strolls add up.”

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These are all examples of mindfulness, whether or not we realize it. We pay attention to certain things when they are called to our attention, either in a positive or a negative way. We remember things that impact us for better or worse.

We can put this ability to work in many other ways to improve our health, but it does take a little focus. In December, the topic of this post concerned the eating habits we typically engage in during the holidays. These “habits” are so ingrained, so much a part of who we are and what we do, so much so that we call them “traditions.” This is not a bad thing. We need traditions to anchor us in our lives, to remind us of what is important in our families and our social circles. It’s only harmful if it causes long-term health problems.

After the holidays, we return to our lives in their normal patterns. These patterns do not typically include as much eating as during the holidays, but we still maintain certain patterns, certain habits. And we really don’t even think about them. We just act. We eat breakfast, lunch and dinner like we always do. We exercise like we always do—or don’t. Perhaps yours are good habits/patterns, perhaps

they are not so much. Either way, they are uniquely yours, and you likely don’t even think about them.

But maybe you should.

Maybe we should take a few moments to think about exactly how much sugar that breakfast donut has. Perhaps we should pay attention to how much sugar we add to our morning coffee. While we’re on a roll, let’s count out how many potato chips we eat with a lunchtime sandwich. If it’s French fries, take a moment and reconsider the sure knowledge that a small order would be less fattening than a super-sized order.

If you are like the average American, you likely are in a hurry, and eating it quickly. Most of us do. It is another habit most of us engage in without thinking about it. We don’t think there is any other way.

“I can’t drink coffee without all the sugar.”

“I need the sugar in the donut and coffee to get me going for the day.”

“But I LIKE the supersize fries. I won’t get full if I eat a small order.”

“I am always in a hurry; I don’t have much time for lunch, and I have to eat fast.”

For a moment, just think about what it is exactly that goes into your mouth, how fast you are eating it and why you chose to eat it. If it is a habit, realize that if it is not a healthy one, you have the power to change it, starting with how you think about it.

It’s not easy. Habits are creatures that have a life of their own. Repeating the same action day after day ingrains it into our brains, and it becomes almost like a reflex. Much like cattle wear down a path as they walk over it time and time again, you are laying down a path in your brain when you repeat an action over and over. The cattle chose the path in the pasture that is easiest to traverse, the path around the obstacles; the path of least resistance.

Humans do the same thing. We choose the path in our brains that takes the least effort. The human brain is wired to do just that. It wants the maximum output for the minimum input. This is a good thing, this allows us to develop skills and abilities that enrich our lives, and the lives of others by repetition. You are experiencing this when your dentist has to pull your tooth. He or she has likely pulled hundreds of teeth already in their career, and the “cattle trail” in the dentist’s brain is well-worn. This is a good thing for you when you are in their chair and your tooth is on its way out. You want that repetition in the dentist’s brain to serve you well, allowing for an easy extraction.

You are likely not a dentist, but you likely have skills you have honed from repetition. Again, this is a good thing; it is how the brain is supposed to work. However, it is easy to develop bad habits through repetition; the brain works the same way, good or bad.

So how does this affect your health? You make choices every day in what you eat, how much you eat and how quickly you eat it. You make choice to exercise or not, and how much, how frequently, and with what intensity. You have likely been doing the same things day after day, and you have a well-worn cattle trail in your brain. This trail may be a healthy one; if so, that’s fabulous. If not, then it’s time to re-think the habits. You have the power to make a new cattle trail in your brain. It is never too late to change.

Just think about it.

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Our bodies are meant to move. We are designed to move our joints in order to move our bodies in simple and in complex ways. Our hips flex to move our legs, our thighs move to flex our knees in order to walk and/or run. Our shoulders flex to move our upper arms, our upper arms move our elbows in order to move our hands. It is a beautiful system, and if you are lucky enough to be able to use all your joints in a functional manner, then by all means you should. You should use them in functional ways, and if your daily routine does not include enough movement, then you should add more with exercise.

If you are not already exercising, the thought of it may not be pleasant. If you exercise regularly, then this habit is ingrained, and the rewards likely keep you doing it over and over again. Given enough regular exercise, the thought of not exercising typically doesn’t even enter the mind of the exerciser. The brain doesn’t give that option because the cattle trail is already worn well. If you ask a person who exercises regularly, they will likely tell you that NOT exercising is not an option in their minds. They have worn a path so well in their brains that they don’t even have to think about it, they just do it.

Back to the non-exerciser: Not exercising is a habit, and it too can be changed. It must start in the mind, you must start by telling your brain that regular exercise is possible and positive, and that you are capable of finding the time and energy to pull it off. Whatever it is–simple like a walk or complex like a gym workout—moving your body is always a good thing. Start small. Start slow. Just start. Start by telling yourself you can do it, and it is worth the pain. Tell yourself you have the time and the capability. Tell yourself this: “If I can just do this for a few weeks, it will become a habit—a good one.”

Just think about it.

The human brain is a powerful, awesome, mysterious and wondrous organ. You have more power than you might think to make it work even better than it already does. Just for today, focus on all decisions—large and small—that you make on a regular basis that affect your health. You may be surprised.

Just think about it.