I can teach you how to ride a unicycle.
I tell you this not to brag, but to – aw, hell, who am I kidding? I tell you this to brag.
I've taught hundreds of people how to do this, including my own children. Here's Elder Daughter, age 9, fall 2005:
And Younger Son, also age 9, winter 2008:
I want to point out a couple of things.
First, I'm not teaching them how to ride. They're teaching themselves, through trial and splat and correction. I'm merely giving them initial steps, opportunities for generative self-reflection, and suggestions for things to try. That pretty much sums up my MO as a health coach as well.
If you approach coaches, dietitians, teachers, chefs, or trainers with the expectation that we're going to do the pedaling and falling for you, that will explain your lack of progress. Nobody can do the work for you; at best, we make you more efficient at learning, with fewer serious bumps and bruises.
Second, and this is the point I want to make here, riding a unicycle is a lot harder than riding a bicycle, which is a lot harder than riding a tricycle.
Three things make unicycle riding particularly challenging, and these things also apply to our efforts to improve our health behaviors.
Unicycle Challenge #1: Unfamiliarity
See a lot of unicycles or unicycle riders in the course of your life? Unless you attend juggling conventions on a regular basis (yes, I was that guy), probably not.
So you don't have a lot of role models when it comes to effective unicycle technique. You haven't watched hundreds of hours of unicycling, passively picking up techniques through the firing of your mirror neurons.
When you first set your ass upon that unstable seat, you have no idea where to put your hands or legs. As soon as you put the slightest bit of weight on the seat, the whole contraption scuttles away from you as if you had a disease that could be fatal to steel and rubber.
Health Behavior Challenge #1: Unfamiliarity
And so it is when we try to get healthy. Eating and moving in accordance with our authentic human nature is rare out there. Media gives us toxic imitations of wellness, such as the unsustainable antics of contestants on “The Biggest Loser” and impossibly svelte Hollywood stars who eat burgers and shakes on screen.
The solution to Unfamiliarity is to find role models who are proficient at the skills and behaviors you aspire to acquire. Since unicycling is such a body-based, tactile activity, YouTube is of limited use.
Much better to visit a juggling meetup or make a pilgrimage to one of the large national or international conventions. When I lived in London in the late 1980s, I used to hang out at a gym where they played a weekend game of unicycle basketball, 5 on 5 with subs. That's a lot of role models.
If you want to improve your health behaviors, you can start online. Watch plant-based cooking demos. Take virtual yoga classes. Join communities based on sound principles of science and human behavior, such as Sick to Fit on Facebook.
At some point, though, you're going to need IRL (in real life) connection. Healthy living is a collection of body-based, tactile activities. Chopping an onion. Walking your first 100 meters. Breathing to balance the branches of your vagus nerve.
These activities are learned and mastered much more quickly and accurately in the presence of those who are already proficient. The difference in implementation and sustainability of new skills and habits is profound between reading or watching a screen, and “being there” – just ask the participants in the recent Sick to Fit retreat in North Carolina.
[We interrupt this article for a self-serving reminder that the next Sick to Fit retreat is March 5-8, 2020, in New Orleans, and you can find out more about it here.]
Once you've made initial progress, don't let Unfamiliarity hold you back from further growth. Seek out IRL community, even if it's one or two neighbors or coworkers for a potluck or walk around the office at lunchtime. If there are no proficient role models around, practice becoming proficient together.
Make unicycling normal.
Unicycle Challenge #2: Unshakeable Habits
If you've never been on a unicycle, you will almost certainly try to put most of your weight into your feet on the pedals.
It's a natural, predictable reaction. Because the unicycle looks like a bicycle, and bicyclists use their feet to pedal and don't even have to be sitting down to go forward.
And it's absolutely the wrong thing to do.
Here's why: the unicycle moves only when the pressure on one pedal is greater than the pressure on the other pedal. If the front pedal is pressed harder, the unicycle moves forward. Pushing harder on the rear pedal sends the unicycle backward.
If you put most of your weight on the pedals, you can't move forward or backward. You're stuck in place, gravitationally impaled by your own distribution of mass.
The alternative is obvious, but extremely difficult to do at first: put all your weight into the seat. That way, the slightest pressure on a pedal moves the unicycle forward or backward.
But the habit of putting weight into the pedals is almost unshakeable for beginners, because it feels so wrong. Like you have absolutely no stability and no control.
Health Behavior Challenge #2: Unshakeable Habits
When it comes to improving our lifestyles, we also cling to old habits that prevent us from experimenting with and adopting new ones. A few of these are cognitive (“Where will I get my protein?”), but most are just ingrained and unconscious until we challenge them.
Like reaching for an apple rather than a muffin. Or – even more challenging – reaching for nothing.
Like getting up 30 minutes earlier on weekdays to fit a yoga routine or brisk walk into our mornings, rather than spending that time in bed scrolling through Instagram or dawdling over coffee and listening to NPR.
We think of muffins and Messenger and Morning Edition as decisions, but they're really not; not after hundreds or thousands of repetitions. They're now unconscious routines with a gravity all their own. And “willing” ourselves to change can be crazy-making; if we don't recognize and respect the weight of those routines, we'll smash into them again and again and deem ourselves weak-willed and undisciplined and unmotivated.
Did you watch the first video above, of Elder Daughter taking her first lesson?
If so, you may have noticed that she used a table for balance. By distributing her weight from her feet to her hands, she was able to shake the foot pressure habit, which made room, eventually, for the useful habit of placing all her body weight on the seat.
That's really significant, and it points to the solution to the problem of unshakeable habits.
You can't shake them by yourself – you need help from your environment. And this means tweaking your existing environment, or moving to a new environment (either temporarily or permanently).
The classic example of this is the heroin addiction epidemic that never happened – the one that was predicted by most health experts based on the rates of heroin use by US soldiers in Vietnam in the late 1960 and early 1970s. When the war ended, how would the US accommodate the tens of thousands of drug addicts who would need treatment before reintegration into society?
What happened surprised everyone: about 95% of the heroin users – and this was and is one of the most addictive substances ever studied – simply stopped using when they left Southeast Asia.
They had been using because the drug was easily obtained, relatively cheap, and highly preferable to the constant states of stress and terror and boredom that characterized the soldiers' lives in theater.
And when those factors fell away, so did the behavior.
The smartphone is a devilishly addictive little friend, is it not? So many apps, so many spins of the roulette wheel of approval and acknowledgment and surprise, and so ever-present.
Keep that sucker by your bedside, get into the habit of checking it every morning, and it won't take long to develop an unshakeable habit.
But move the phone to another room to charge at night, and the habit will simply not get triggered.
Instead of morning coffee, try morning water. Unplug the coffee maker and have a glass of water already filled and on the counter when you walk into the kitchen in the morning, and drink half before your walk and half after.
Then plug in your Keurig and continue with your morning routine.
Start a morning yoga habit on vacation, in a room where none of your unshakeable habits can even get triggered.
Shake up your environment, and you'll find your unshakeable habits far more amenable to change than you can imagine.
Unicycle Challenge #3: 360 Degrees of Calamity
Do you remember when you first learned to ride a bicycle? You were worried about falling, right?
And you were worried about falling in two directions only: left, or right.
That's why the training wheels go only on the right and left sides of the rear tire. Because bicycles exhibit lateral symmetry.
Sure, when you get as good as me at riding, you can start worrying about flying over the handlebars, like I did a couple of times:
Once, in high school when I borrowed Eric's 10-speed to ride home from his house in the fancy part of town on the hill to my own modest neighborhood. And never having ridden a geared bike before, I squeezed the left brake lever and instantly discovered the difference between front- and rear-wheel braking with my face, forearms, and knees.
And another time in Jerusalem, when I was riding home from a performance of Die Fledermaus around midnight and I had forgotten that I had down-shifted to granny gear on my last uphill, reached the valley and put all my weight into the pedal that was geared to provide virtually no resistance, and again flew ass over ears onto the asphalt of Chayim Barlev Street.
But I digress.
My point is, there are a limited number of ways to fall off a bicycle.
And so learning how to ride one starts with learning how to avoid those ways of falling.
A unicycle, on the other hand, exhibits radial symmetry. Of, if I can recall anything of high school geometry, infinite order.
You can fall in 360 degrees. Backwards. Forwards. Northwest. Southeast.
The only direction you ain't going, is up.
And because there are so many ways to get it wrong, many aspiring unicyclists give up due to non-negotiable, bodily fear.
Habit change can also suffer from 360 degrees of possibility.
Say you decide to give up sugary treats. That's a common enough New Year's resolution.
The problem with that intention is, there's no “there” there. There's nothing to DO. Only a bunch of ingrained, repeated, environmentally triggered, things to NOT DO.
In other words, 360 degrees of potential failure.
Solving 360 Degrees of Calamity
Instead of operationalizing a DO NOT, the solution here is to choose a DO that is incompatible with the no-longer-desired behavior.
On the unicycle, you practice moving forward by pressing down on the forward pedal. Sure, the unicycle skids backwards, away from you, for a bunch of times. But you're left standing where the seat was, and you eventually learn to trust the forward motion as something that won't hurt you.
Similarly, choose a NEW DO that will crowd out the OLD DO. Instead of “No sugar,” come up with a positive alternative. How about, “Whenever I get the urge to eat a sugary treat, I will drink water.”
Or eat an apple. Or banana. Or grapes.
Or do five pushups.
Or whatever behavior is incompatible with consuming a sugary treat.
Channel your inner Hank Williams, and tell your old habit to “Move it on over” because the new habit, the “Big Dog,” is moving in.
And you'll soon find that the sensation of forward motion gives you confidence and stability, such that the NEW DO quickly becomes sustainable.
Both of my kids, who are now in their 20s, can now ride the unicycle easily and expertly, even if they haven't been on one for years.
It's like, well, riding a unicycle.
And your positive health habits can be just as resilient.
So let's start pedaling for a great 2020!
Do you want 2020 to be the year you finally take control of your behaviors and habits?
Are you tired of watching your habits sabotage your goals and mock your values?
Are you ready to align your desires with your actions?
Are you yearning to put everything you know into practice?
If so, I invite you consider working with me as your health coach.
I've developed a program that blows most objections and excuses out of the water.
No time? Check.
I've failed so many times before? Handled.
Can't afford $300-800 a month for private coaching? No problem.
I've got room for three new clients in January 2020. Don't delay if you'd like to be one of them.
Become a Health Coach
New cohort beginning Fall 2021. Live classes will be 10-11:30am US Eastern Time on Wednesday, so this is a Europe- and Africa-friendly class. Also for folks in the US, Canada, and Central/South America who have flexible mornings.
Find out more and apply here: WellStartCoach.com.
New Audiobook: Use the Weight to Lose the Weight
Listen to Josh LaJaunie and me narrate our latest audiobook, about how to start moving when you're obese.
It's $10, and Josh and I split it evenly 🙂
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You can learn about Will, listen to more tracks, and buy music on his website, WillRidenour.com.
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