What Your Bad Habits Say About You

When Robert works, he’s glued to his computer screen, consumed for hours with phone calls and deadlines, oblivious to hunger pangs. He often skips meals or grabs whatever might be in his desk drawer—potato chips, Girl Scout cookies, leftover Christmas candy. Over the last couple of years, he has started gaining weight, despite intensifying his exercise regimen, and he can’t figure out why.

Meanwhile, Angela, a mother of three, has started losing weight since she opened a new business. Where she once ate because she was bored, she’s now so busy that she only eats when she’s truly hungry. Although she fits exercise into her schedule only occasionally, the pounds just seem to be melting off.

Both people are busy with work, but it affects their weights differently—what’s going on?

The key to the difference may lie with their personalities— the way they handle their hectic lives. In Robert’s case, a lack of planning ambushes his good intentions—he skips meals, waits too long to eat, and ends up scarfing down the nearest edible item. He’s a spontaneous single guy with an unstructured lifestyle, which reinforces his bad eating habits. Angela’s just as busy, but as an organized mom accustomed to assembling meals for her children every few hours, she thinks ahead, packing a nutritious lunch for herself along with several healthy but satisfying snacks that she can eat on the run.

How does your personality affect your ability to live a healthier lifestyle? Perhaps you have your diet under control, but exercise in fits and starts, unable to maintain consistency. Or perhaps you are exceedingly disciplined in working out regularly, but are too impatient to keep the food journal that would help you rein in your habitual overeating. Analyzing your personality—appreciating your strengths while honestly acknowledging and balancing your weaknesses—may give you the self-knowledge you need to get and stay fit.

You can’t really change your basic personality, nor do you need to. A particular personality trait is two-sided—useful in some situations, not so helpful in others. By analyzing how your innate traits affect your health and well-being, you can come up with strategies to channel your tendencies—so they’re always strengths, never weaknesses.

Here are some personality traits that might make a difference, and tips to help you use them to meet your health and fitness goals:

Are you an extrovert or an introvert? While it’s perfectly natural to lean one way or the other, it’s probably helpful to look for ways to balance your dominant tendency.

If you’re an extrovert, you may have a tendency to let social situations dictate your program or unduly influence your choices—for example, by canceling a workout if your fitness buddy isn’t available. Instead:
  • Organize or get involved in friendly competitions that not only challenge your fitness level, but allow you to encourage and help others.
  • Indulge your love of people with fitness activities that involve others—aerobics classes, team sports, busy gyms.
  • Eat healthfully in social ways: swap tasty but healthy recipes or share meals/desserts when eating out.
Introverts are more oriented toward an inner world of ideas and face the opposite challenge: a stubborn tendency to go it alone, forgoing the support, motivation, and companionship others might offer. Some possible solutions:
  • Make reading or learning about fitness a motivational tool that can help energize you
  • Balance solitary exercise with some somewhat social exercise, even if it involves just one close friend. You may not want to exercise with a large group in a class setting, but you may be comfortable walking with a good friend.
  • Capitalize on your penchant for defining success by measuring your previous accomplishments against current performances.
Are you a careful planner or an impulsive improviser? Both have their virtues. The planner faithfully counts calories and miles walked, while the improviser doesn’t stress out when an unexpected menu change at his favorite restaurant requires adaptability.

Some tips for planners:
  • Make a conscious effort to branch out periodically, try new things, and allow for variety, whether picking a fitness activity or shopping for vegetables
  • Satisfy your need to bring things to completion by keeping a checklist of the goals you set and accomplish
  • Occasionally allow yourself to be "carried along" in both fitness endeavors and fun things, which can be rewards for meeting your goals (This means you must cut back on overbooking your schedule!).
Strategies for improvisers::
  • Pick workout avenues which allow you to literally change course on quick notice, whether on a jogging path or at a gym filled with diverse classes and equipment.
  • Pair up with another improviser who's flexible and open to new activities, but will help hold you accountable in maintaining consistency
  • Commit to a regular, specific quantity of weekly exercise while including "wiggle room" in case other activities come up. You might decide, for example, that you’ll work out at least 30 minutes five times a week, thus giving yourself a "pass" to skip exercising one or two days next week.
Are you intuitive or analytical? Both approaches can likely lead to success. Being honest about which way you lean will help you find the middle road that’s effective.

Intuitive personalities generally resist record-keeping, assuming they just "know" whether they’ve been good or bad. To be more accurate and ensure success, try to:
  • Adopt simple record-keeping systems for fitness and nutrition that have components which make sense to you—portion sizes (simply small, medium, and large), miles walked, etc.
  • Rate your success in meeting daily and weekly goals on a scale of 1-10— intuitives tend to see "the big picture"
Although the analytical personality can turn record-keeping into a major obsession, being detail-oriented has its rewards: problem-solving skills that can be used to identify and overcome fitness obstacles.
  • Do you set goals that are so unrealistic you can never meet them? Use your talents to break goals and activities into smaller, realistic pieces that can be more easily accomplished.
  • Avoid getting bogged down in too much measurement detail. Instead, pick one or two (such as weight or inches lost) to assess once or twice a week.
  • Find a way to learn more about health and fitness trends on a regular basis, whether using the library, internet, or reputable magazine. Like the introvert, you enjoy exposure to new ideas and data. Make a point to learn about any personal issue you grapple with, such as emotional overeating or how to successfully quit smoking
Which friends have personality styles that complement or enhance yours? Most of us have several types of friends— those with whom we have things in common ("birds of a feather flocking together") and those with personalities very different from our own ("opposites attracting.") Partnering with both types can benefit both you and them. You’ll be surprised at how you’ll balance each other out, have fun, and boost each other toward your goals.

Designing a fitness regimen that not only suits your lifestyle but meshes with your unique personality may take some time and thought, but it’s well worth the effort. To quote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.