What do elephants and cancer have to do with my fat-loss journey?

We know what to do. So why don’t we do it?

We know that we should be eating vegetables. We know that we should be exercising. We know that fried food should not be part of our daily diet. We know ALL these things. So, the question is, Why don’t we DO what we know will get us to our goal?

It’s something that I struggle with all the time. In my life and mindset.

In the book, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard* by Chip and Dan Heath, the authors equate human behavior change to riding an elephant in the jungle.  In order to be successful, we need to motivate the rider (our rational thinking, or our thinky brain), the elephant (our emotional side), and the path (our environment).

Okay, so let’s look at the is analogy. Think about yourself sitting on top of an elephant. In the jungle. You want to go left. So, you steer the elephant left. But the elephant doesn’t want to go that way. The elephant wants to go straight. What do you think is going to happen? Who is going to win? You or the elephant?

The elephant wins.

But here’s another thing to consider: What about the path? Is the path going left? If it is, then the elephant is more likely to go that direction. But if you’re foraging a new path through thick trees & brush, there’s no way that elephant is going where you want.

When it comes to our health, we already have the rational thinking covered. Right? We already know what we need to do: eat more vegetables, move often, don’t smoke, get about 8 hours of sleep, manage our stress, limit fried foods, processed foods, alcohol… And we know why we should do it: to avoid disease, feel better, to live longer or to be able to do those things that we enjoy.

Yet, there’s a disconnect.

We’re not doing it.

And we’re not going to do it until the elephant is motivated.

The Path

Before we get to the elephant though, let’s talk about the path: our environments.

One way to shape behavior change is to do in through our environments and social circles. This is clear in the trend to stop smoking. Smoking has become so inconvenient in many situations that many folks have quit, due to the social stigma that comes along with smoking, and it just seems easier to quit than to abide by all the rules that go along with it.

Belonging is something that we, as humans, crave. By forcing smokers to follow smoking rules that cast one as an outsider, it has become socially unacceptable to smoke cigarettes. We’ve shaped our society to encourage behavior change in smokers. And it’s working.

Smokers know that smoking is bad for them. We were all taught in 3rd grade about the dangers of smoking. So, the rational side of our brain already knew this. By changing our environments, it makes it easier for the emotional brain to come along.

My Mom & me trying on fancy hats. Trying on fancy hats at department stores is one of my guilty pleasures.
My Mom & me trying on fancy hats. Trying on fancy hats at department stores is one of my guilty pleasures.

The Emotional Brain

The biggest motivator in my health journey was my mom’s struggle with breast cancer, and her death. I saw the destruction that the cancer caused her body.

At the time, I had already started my health journey. I exercised occasionally. I had made some changes to my diet. But I wasn’t really committed.

After she passed, I remember Googling, “causes of cancer” and “how do I avoid getting cancer?” The way that the cancer destroyed her body made me want to avoid it at all costs. I didn’t want that to happen to me.

Through my research, I found that there were a few environmental contributors to cancer: being overweight, diet,  and  activity level, to name a few.  I was overweight, mostly inactive, and although vegetarian, a very bad vegetarian. I didn’t know enough to know what I didn’t know about a meat-free diet.

To that point, the culture of my family life growing up was that intellectual pursuits were superior to the physical. We were raised in the arts: Required to play a string instrument (I think my parents picked string instruments to avoid the squawking and screeching that brass and woodwinds produce when a child is learning how to play! Ha!), encouraged to take part in plays and musicals, often went to museums on family outings.

So sports, activity, and exercising weren’t something that I was used to.

And in feeding 6 kids and 2 adults, my mom’s nutritional strategies were how to stretch a buck, and fill everyone up at the same time. Rice, noodles, and white potatoes were staples in our household.

In thinking about how the cancer had destroyed my mom’s body, it occurred to me that to avoid disease, I needed to prepare my body so that it would be able to fight off any disease that I might develop. Not only did I need to get down to a healthy weight, but I also needed to eat better quality of foods, become active, and well, become a responsible adult.

The elephant was motivated. I had a visceral need to not end up with cancer,  like my mom had. The emotional side sparked my behavior change. Both my thinky brain and my emotional brain were in sync.

I changed my life.

This all happened 15 years ago. It’s why I do what I do; professionally as well as personally.

So often, when we decide that we want to make a change, we want to ‘want to’ do it. We want to be motivated – but we’re not. And we’re not motivated because we haven’t activated that emotional part of our brains that would convince us of a compelling reason to make the change.

One of the techniques that you can use, is that you can start to shape the path: if you’re trying to cut down on your alcohol consumption, try to limit exposure to friends or family who support that. If you want to move more, cultivate relationships with friends who make that a part of their life. Want to stop late night munchies? Don’t bring it into the house; you can’t eat what you don’t have.

These are just a few techniques. But for sure, the best motivator is to get that elephant on board!

Read more about my fat-loss journey by downloading my guide: 7 Mistakes I made in my Fat-Loss Journey (and the fixes to prevent you from doing the same!)


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