Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Your environment is the chief determinant of your behaviours and your daily behaviours determine your health. By deduction, the environment determines your health and this has been a profound realization for us. We always intuitively knew that the places and people you surround yourself with are the determinants of who you become but it only recently hit us that the most efficient way to help people is to guide them on changing their environment instead of focusing on their behaviours.
Define Your Environment
Environment is a broad term that can carry a lot of different meanings depending on the context in which the term is being used. The first thing that comes to mind when we say “the environment” is nature and although it can be applied to the natural environment, the artificial environment that we now live within is more important to our health and that is what we will focus on.
A few definitions of environment:
- The surroundings or conditions in which a person, plant or animal lives and operates.
- The circumstances, objects or conditions by which one is surrounded.
Basically, anything that influences your physical or mental being. Changing your behaviour starts with an awareness of what causes you to act in certain ways and that conversation comes back to the environment. Starting small is always the first step and in order to implement small changes, we’re starting with defining the different types of environments that surround us so we can start to make changes in each of them.
Rewilding your environment
Rewilding your environment really means shifting your environment back to a natural one. This doesn’t, however, mean that we need to move into the woods, live like hunter-gatherers and sleep in caves. It means understanding how our bodies function best and bringing our environment back into alignment with our biology. Becoming a movement optimist allows you to turn the urban environment into a wild environment. Go play at a park (they aren’t just for kids), stand on the train/bus, climb trees - create a new experience by changing your mindset to one where life is about playing and finding new ways to use structures of modern life to express movement.
In fact, to make things even simpler - it’s less about having the perfect environment and more about eliminating the harmful conveniences that promote poor behaviours. Walk instead of drive, sit on the floor or squat instead of sitting on the couch - no need to eliminate your car or couch, just to use them sparingly and adopt a mindset and environment that nudges you to make the right decision.
Creating systems and eliminating willpower
If you’re sick, obese and diabetic in modern society it’s not your fault. We live in a culture that is engineered for comfort, convenience, disease and suffering and how we behave is simply an adaptation to those surroundings.
Traditional health professionals have put the blame on the individual. They advise people to get on a diet, to be disciplined and to take responsibility for their health but that's not fair. As Dan Buettner says - in the 1980s there was 1/7th the rate of diabetes than there is today and that's not because people in the 80’s were more disciplined or had more self-control, it’s because they lived in a different environment. The environment is the system that allows you to foster healthy behaviours without requiring a huge amount of willpower or discipline and this is the path we need to take when helping others. Get the environment right and everything else falls into place over time.
The physical environment
The physical environment includes anything that you can touch or feel. The furniture in your home, the clothing you wear, the food you consume - it all combines to create the surroundings that you interact with on a daily basis. Making the choice to be the master of our environment instead of a slave to it allows us to surround ourselves with spaces and objects that promote healthy behaviours.
Many people simply don’t realize that they have the potential to control their physical environment. Whether it’s from adherence to cultural norms, a lack of awareness or addiction to convenience, its easy to become a slave to your environment and the habits that it fosters.
Prioritizing health means creating systems to ensure that healthy behaviours are promoted and unhealthy behaviours are dis-incentivized. A big part of creating those systems is the physical environment we surround ourselves with on a daily basis.
The social environment
The people you surround yourself with daily form your social environment. We all know that you become the people you surround yourself with and cultivating a social environment that fits in line with your lifestyle values is an important and ongoing challenge for everyone.
If your existing social environment is not congruent with the shift you’re making in your health you can either work to shift the environment by recruiting others to join the journey or you can create a new social environment for yourself that fits with your new self.
Changing the environment
Changing your environment can be done in many different ways and at many different levels. Change begins with:
1) the knowledge about what changes should be made to improve the likelihood of healthy
2) the guidance on starting with the smallest step you are willing to commit to.
From a functional standpoint (which used to be the only thing of relevance), clothing is something humans have traditionally worn to cover the body and protect it from the environment. To protect themselves from temperature and from abrasion or cuts. Somewhere along the way clothing took a fork and started to become something we wore for reasons other than function. To appeal to the opposite sex, to express our personality or to improve performance in a specific activity. There is nothing wrong with wearing clothing for reasons other than function but it becomes a problem when those reasons find themselves in direct conflict with function. If you wear clothing that restricts joints from moving, that removes important body functions from happening or that prevents you from adopting natural positions or executing natural movements - then clothing is an element of your environment that needs to change.
Footwear is clothing and for many is a logical, easy place to start when it comes to re-engineering your environment. You might not always wear the best footwear but if the shoes you spend most of your waking hours in allow for natural function then you have a foot environment that promotes health. Look for wide, flat, flexible and thin footwear as your everyday shoes.
Clothing for the rest of the body also matters. If what you cover your body with doesn’t allow you to reach, squat, jump or run freely, then you need to rethink that element of your environment. Wear clothing that gives you movement options, that give you the opportunity to move if it presents itself.
Your home is the place you sleep, eat most meals and spend a large amount of your time. It’s also a place that you have full control over in terms of the physical, social and mental environment. Engineering a healthy physical environment at the home starts with making movement convenient and sedentary behaviour inconvenient. Slowly reducing the amount of sitting furniture and making floor living a convenient option is a great place to start.
The home is a great place to spend time barefoot so making a rule to avoid footwear in the home is a simple start to restoring mobile, strong feet. The physical environment at home includes not only the furniture but also the food available for you and your family to consume. Gradually making changes to reduce the number of addictive food products and increase the amount of real, nutritious, whole food available in the home is the mission here. It might simply start with making a bowl filled with fresh fruit visible and hiding away sweets to reduce the likelihood of
them acting as a visual cue for cravings.
A healthy social environment in the home is very important but can be a bit abstract to grasp. Making the home a safe, trusting space without fear of judgement is a powerful element in engineering a healthy social environment. Every action and decision must have an underlying element of love and empathy and negative emotions should be discussed and tackled together instead of allowing them to fester. A great way to improve the social environment in the home is to plan regular games or activities that bring everyone together. Make them analog (no phones/distractions) and focus on activities that require a combined effort for success. If you can incorporate movement even better.
The workplace for many is an environment where we spend a large portion of our waking hours so it’s an important one when it comes to enabling healthy habits. Two focal elements of the environment in the workplace: movement, food. When it comes to movement, a dynamic workstation is the key. A place where you can still work at a computer (if you don’t work a desk job this won't be as relevant) but in a way that permits a variety of positions. Standing, kneeling, standing on 1 leg, sitting on the floor, a bit of chair time - the only position to avoid is the one you spend long hours in without moving.
Seeking out or bringing healthy food options to work for meals and snacks ensures that you aren’t tempted to consume the delicious food products that surround us on a regular basis but wreak havoc on our health. Gradually make movement and healthy food options more convenient in your workplace and you will eventually make healthy choices the only choice.
Locomotion (you moving you) seems to be gradually getting replaced by transportation (machines moving you). Seeking out environments that make locomotion more convenient than transportation is a great way to promote movement. Spending time in areas with walking and cycling paths, or parking further away from destinations on purpose will promote more movement. In the urban setting built around transportation, you must become a locomotion opportunist and adopt the challenge of constantly seeking ways to use your body more and machines less.
Schools are the equivalent of the workplace for children - it’s where they spend the bulk of their waking hours and is the single largest environmental force that shapes their development. Similar to the workplace, engineering the physical environment to promote movement and the food environment to promote healthy decisions are the big ones.
Movement is the secret weapon when it comes to learning so creating a physical environment in classrooms that allow a variety of positions for kids to choose from should be a major push from every education institute. It doesn’t need to cost a fortune and it’s the most important thing to improve how kids learn so its worth the efforts to inform schools of options for how they can improve.
The food environment in schools is pretty simple - we should only be making healthy options available to kids. Control the environment and you ensure the right behaviours are done. Kids shouldn’t be tempted with the food products that companies create and making a push for schools to understand the importance of food and the feasibility of making only healthy options available will be a project for our tribe to lead in future.
As a thought: why not create a class where students learn to identify and grow vegetables (real-life applicable knowledge) and serve the resulting produce in the cafeteria to create meals? Sometimes solutions can be simple and helping to shift the school environment from a sedentary classroom and unhealthy cafeteria to a movement rich environment filled with delicious healthy food choices should be a no brainer.
It might not be intuitive to think of the food we eat as part of your environment but it very much is. It is a unique element of the environment in that it begins as part of the external, physical environment and once ingested becomes part of the internal environment of the body.
Ancestrally, the food environment was fairly simple: we looked to our surrounding habitat to provide for us and from it, we hunted, gathered, and prepared food. The selection of options was based on seasonal and local availability and only real food was available.
The modern food environment is now very different. As soon as you walk into a supermarket you enter a strange realm where food and food products are mixed together so as to be almost indistinguishable. Food companies profit from creating products that capitalize on our natural cravings for sugar, fat, and salt by engineering products that cater to those cravings without the nutrients that would typically follow from natural foods.
Controlling your food environment is the most effective way to ensure healthy food choices are made. Only having real, whole food in the home, entering the supermarket with a firm understanding of what you will be buying and what areas to avoid will help remove the need for self-control and discipline when it comes to food.
Changing your social environment starts with thinking about the people you surround yourself with and whether they create positive or negative energy for you. Surrounding yourself with positive, loving people who support the health journey that you have embarked on will be a massive boost in enabling healthy behaviours. Better yet, find a group of people who are also interested in making similar changes and take the journey together.
Being around people who speak negatively of your healthy changes, who continue with unhealthy behaviours around you or who negatively affect your mood on a daily basis can signal that a change in your social environment is needed to ensure success.
Changing your mental environment is perhaps the most important and yet least understood element when it comes to health. We understand the benefits of physical training in creating a resilient, robust and strong body but fail to realize that the mind is the control centre of the body and it to can (…and must) be trained to allow for optimal function.
Awareness around the mental health problem has increased in the past decade but solutions to help people become mentally healthy have not yet permeated into a common culture. In a world full of distractions and apps vying for our attention, humans have lost the ability to reflect and embrace the beauty of boredom as a way to de-clutter the mind.
The ability to focus attention for longer than 10 minutes has become a lost art that is manifesting as an epidemic of mental health problems and the solution is to help people realize the value and simplicity of training the mind and helping them get started.
The mental environment is abstract but it literally shapes every emotion, behaviour, and action that we take. Mental health is something we plan to focus on for 2020 by taking the same approach we used to deliver simple, actionable advice on foot health to help people re-establish a healthy, strong, resilient mind.
Genetics matter, but the environment matters more. The smart people are saying that when it comes to how long you live: it’s 15% genes and 85% lifestyle/environment. The genes themselves may be fixed but their expression (what really matters) is largely regulated by lifestyle and lifestyle is a direct result of your environment. Therefore…..to control your gene expression you must control your environment. Surround yourself with the conditions that allow natural, healthy behaviours to ensue and you will have profoundly changed your body without even realizing it.
As a tribe, we need to make epigenetics simple and bring it to the forefront of awareness. The world of medicine has shifted cultural perceptions to one where people feel that their genetics determine their health and efforts to improve are ineffective at changing outcomes. This deterministic view eats away at their locus of control when it comes to health and removes their responsibility.
Emphasizing that it is the environment you surround yourself with and your daily behaviours that determine your mental and physical health re-empowers them with being able to control their situation. It places the responsibility back on them and with the right guidance and support, gives them back the potential to be the hero of their health story.