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Falling Off the Wagon: A New Holiday

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You read that right. This little-known holiday fell on a week amid a perfect storm of celebrations: Super Bowl Sunday and Valentine’s Day. Neither occasion is known for healthy eating or clean living. At least on Valentine’s Day we eat fruit – but only if it’s dipped in chocolate.

Fall Off the Wagon Day is the day most people give up on their New Year’s resolutions – at least temporarily according to the data. Foursquare reports between January 1st and Fall Off the Wagon Day, fast food consumption is down 4.6% compared to the annual average, but gym visits are up 6%.

People make it to about February 9th, then fast food purchases return to normal. Foursquare has tracked this trend since 2018 and dubbed February 9th to be Fall Off the Wagon Day – if we’d had known we would have put decorations up!

So even if you were still totally focused with your eye on the prize on February 9th and made healthy choices on Super Bowl Sunday and Valentine’s Day, why do most of us end up falling off the wagon? It all has to do with the wiring of our brains.

We are built to favor behaviors that create a reward sooner than a reward later, even if the later reward is a greater reward (new catchphrase?). Dr. Peter Attia explains this phenomenon as hyperbolic discounting and it used to facilitate our survival.

Dr. Attia explains, by prioritizing immediate survival (e.g., eat the abandoned, weak buffalo) over less certain long-term gains (e.g., track the herd and kill several of the largest animals) humans became wired to seek out immediate gratification over long term reward.

An immediate reward is a sure thing, while a future reward may never come to fruition. The longer the delay to a pay-off, the higher the risk that it might never happen.

In ancient times this trait was no doubt beneficial when survival into the next year or beyond was not guaranteed. But in our modern world, this attribute is creates an internal conflict. As Dr. Attia explains, “long-term goals of fat loss or retirement savings are at an inherent disadvantage when weighed against an extravagant dinner with a hefty bar tab this weekend.”

We can’t change the hardwiring of our brains but we can take steps to work with our nature rather than battle against it.

Pre-commitment is one of the best defenses against our impulsive primal nature. If you’re going to try intermittent fasting for the first time, best to have your first meal planned and prepped so you’re not leaving that decision to your ravenous state of mind.

If you want to eat better, preparing healthy meals for the whole week is another way to take advantage of a pre-commitment to a goal. It is also best to celebrate little wins along the path to a big goal. So at the end of that week, for instance, it is important to reward yourself in some way so your primal brain begins to crave that reward just as much as the immediate gratification of In-N-Out right now.

Today is as good a day as any other to get back on track!

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

If you made big resolutions and found yourself slipping up on February 9th or any other day, don’t beat yourself up. Your brain is not built for your latest fitness plan. It evolved to keep you alive and survival in the primal world often favored reward now over the future.

Take solace that you are not alone. But to ensure better luck in reaching our goals, we need to work with our biology rather than against it. Divide up big goals and celebrate each little win along the way. Make pre-commitments often that lock-in good behavior and make it more difficult to falter.

And if you fall off this new and improved plan, Dr. Peter Attia has a good motto for you: today is as good a day as any other to get back on track!

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