a bold plan for abolishing unhealthy habits

It’s baffling but true: so many of modern life’s social norms are actually really unhealthy, even for us runners.

Eating packaged, processed foods, sitting for long periods, standing for long periods, striving to be highly productive every waking moment and looking at screens all day (and maybe night) contribute to our stress load so gradually and incrementally that we barely notice it—at first.

Maybe you’re like me and have a hard time finding time to slip out for a run some days. It feels like a selfish or rebellious act when there’s so much to get done.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way; I hear it so often from the women at our running and wellness retreats. Some feel guilty for running instead of being at home with my family, many blow off a workout in order to get a few more things ticked off their to-do list.

An economics report released last year titled Americans Work Too Long (And at Strange Times) reported that 27 percent of Americans regularly work between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and 29 percent work on weekends. And most of us don’t use all our vacation time.

Work that takes over our lives contributes to the high levels of overwhelm and burnout in the American workforce.

So why do we find ourselves stuck in the same patterns, working too much, not running as much as we want, eating as well as we want or taking care of ourselves as well as we should?

I reached out to my friends Cara Maiolo, LPC and Amber Valenti Armstrong, PA-C, the co-founders of Luminary transformative wellness retreats, to get their expert take on why it’s so dang hard to consistently put our wellbeing at the top of the priority list.

[Elinor] Why is it so challenging to put our own needs first?

[Cara]: Even though you know that neglecting your self care can lead to things like physical disease, decreased vitality, resentment, low self-esteem, feeling disconnected and discontent, it’s still not enough to put your needs first each day. And that’s normal; most of us need help making the right choices for right now.

Certain emotions–especially guilt–make this so hard. Feeling guilty actually makes it easier to deny your own needs and desires. So you alleviate your guilt by focusing more on your to-do list or what others want from you.

The most successful people I know are able to prioritize self care because they have mastered one essential skill: they don’t let guilt influence their commitments to their self care practices including activities like running. Instead, they skillfully navigate uncomfortable emotions like guilt, viewing it as a normal emotion rather than a negative one.

They move through the guilt rather than letting it stop them from putting their needs first. This helps them see ways to meet the needs of people they love and take care of themselves in the process.

This may not happen at the exact same time, but shuffling priorities so that everyone’s needs are eventually and creatively met (including yours) is an incredibly important skill. And that skill involves new habits, good communication with your loved ones and clear intentions.

[Elinor] Has either of you ever had to do this for yourself?

[Amber]: I definitely have. For example, I work in health care, a field that deeply values long hours and a high level of productivity.

While training to become a physician assistant, I was expected to work 30-hour shifts and 80-hour weeks. That became so ingrained in me that I didn’t dare leave the clinic for a quiet lunchtime walk. I feared being judged by my boss or colleagues. I was uncomfortable if every moment wasn’t super productive.

No matter how hard I worked, there was always more to do. While I knew I should take a break and walk outside, I’d stay in the office, mired in these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. I had to choose between appeasing my fears or sticking to my self-care goal.

Making the right choice was a gradual practice, and one that we now teach at Luminary Retreats.

[Elinor] What does that process look like? 

[Cara] It requires opening up to new awareness, turning towards instead of away from difficult thoughts and feelings and making mistakes on the path to ultimately breaking free from those bad habits once and for all.

And it starts with adopting a “growth mindset.”

A growth mindset allows you to see challenges as opportunities to learn, rather than a reason to beat yourself up for falling into the same trap or other shortcomings. The key is getting curious about your unhealthy habit (rather than critical) and continuing to move toward what you really want, such as a consistent running routine.

A four-step process we use at Luminary is called getting B.O.L.D., which improves your awareness and decision making so you can replace unhealthy habits with healthier ones. The four steps are:

B: Breathe and slow down.

When a habit is deeply ingrained or especially difficult to change, the first step is to literally stop what you’re doing and take a mindful break. Find a private place where you can tune into the present moment. Feel your feet on the floor. Take a few deep breaths. Notice your breath move in and out of your nose. This helps your nervous system move out of high alert and reverse upsetting feelings like pressured, resentment or frustration.

O: Observe your thoughts and feelings.

Rather than judging and analyzing what you’re experiencing, assume an observational role. Notice the thoughts and name the specific feelings you’re experiencing from an outsider’s perspective. Mindfully observe what’s going on inside you without believing or getting “hooked” by your thoughts and judgments. Imagine a little gap or space between what’s going through your mind and your knee-jerk reaction to it.

[Amber] For example, when I was sitting at my desk, feeling guilty about wanting to take a lunch break outside, I paused to recognize the feeling of guilt. Then I noticed the thoughts that came up, like, “What if my colleagues think I’m lazy?” or “My boss will think I’m bad at my job?” But through this process, I found some separation from those feelings and thoughts from me as a person.

L: Listen to what matters most to you.

[Cara] The next step is to uncover the deeper “why” beneath the behavior change. What kind of person do you want to be?  What do you want your life to look like? What are your deepest desires for how you want to show up in the world and interact with others? Values are like a compass in that they help you align your choices with your desires and how you see yourself.

D: Decide on a valued action and do it!

Once you’re aware of your habitual pattern of feelings, thoughts and actions, now’s your chance to course correct and take the “next right step.” With a clear sense of you value most, what you desire and how you want to feel, use that clarity to take action that moves you toward your richest, fullest, most meaningful life.

[Amber]: While this process takes a lot of conscious effort in the beginning, it gets way easier with practice. And it’s so perfect that the acronym for this process is BOLD because for me, asking myself what I wanted and needed at first felt like a really bold move.

But it didn’t take long before stepping outside for a break each workday was my new norm, and that boldness left no room for guilt or fear.


Your BOLD Plan for Abolishing Unhealthy Habits After more than a decade each in their respective fields of physical and mental health, Cara and Amber have developed a powerful set of transformational tools and techniques for creating lasting change, vibrant health and personal fulfillment through healing approaches that integrate the mind, body, and heart that they deliver through their articles, retreats and programs at www.Luminaryretreats.com