Are You Being too Permissive?

In my last entry, I wrote about biology not rewarding our good intentions — it only responds to the actual inputs of a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise, sleep, stress management).  A particularly interesting phenomenon in this category is what psychologists call “permissiveness.”

You might not have heard this term, but you’re probably familiar with the scenario:  “I just did a 30-minute workout at the gym, so I’m going to reward myself on the way home with a Grande Frappuccino and muffin!”  When we do something we’re not used to that’s good for our health, we feel like we have more wiggle room elsewhere.  Unfortunately, this usually backfires.  Do the math:  you burned about 200 calories at the gym, and then loaded up with a 400-calorie drink.  Hey, at least you chose the apple bran muffin — that’s healthy, right?  Sorry — at 350 calories, the 7 grams of bran fiber does not redeem this indulgence.  Bottom line?  Psychologicaly, we feel we earned that treat.  Biologically, we end up with a net gain of 550 calories that’s headed straight to our fat storage.

Permissiveness is hard to avoid — it’s such a part of our human interactions, that it seems unfair that biology doesn’t cut us the same slack.  What can we do?

Decide on ways to reward yourself that don’t involve unhealthy behaviors such as junk food, excess alcohol, avoiding exercise, etc.  Think of big rewards like scheduling a massage, or little rewards like 10 minutes of guilt-free Farmville or Angry Birds.  Reward yourself with social interactions — this has the added bonus of being a healthy behavior in and of itself.  (Dare I mention?  Some research has found strong social connections to be a better predictor of health outcomes than diet or execise!)

Feeling like we have to be vigilant one hundred percent of the time can be stressful and burdensome.  Seriously — when you read a book or web site that predicts dire consequences for the slightest transgression of diet or exercise, you can be sure that the author is the only one with such strict adherence.  (And in all honesty, those authors probably aren’t even that strict — we’re all human!)  So allow for treats now and then — just keep them modest.  This acts as a safety valve, to avoid big binges down the road.

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