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Can We Learn Healthy Habits From Rats?

Seek a different path to your fitness goals

Do you know why rats are smarter than people? Because if rats go down a tunnel and don’t find cheese, they eventually try a different corridor. Another indication is that the rats don’t blame themselves when they can’t find cheese, nor do they criticize themselves for a lack of self-discipline or willpower. Instead, they take a new path.

We humans, however, go down the same tunnel over and over and over. Despite repeated failure, we think that with greater focus, intensity, self-discipline and effort, we’ll find the cheese this time.

How else can we explain the fad diets that predictably rise, reach their apex in popularity and then disappear, only to be replaced by more of the same?

How else can we explain the millions of dollars spent each year on products that promise buyers an effortless path to a slim and trim body — even though none of us can recall a product that actually delivered on that promise?

I can’t tell you how many times over the decades that I tried and failed to lose weight. Then I tried even harder and failed again. Then I tried harder still — with more intensity and willfulness — and failed yet again. Haunted by past failures, I gave up and accepted the reality that fat was my fate. Eventually, I would get motivated yet again, try the latest fad or gimmick and (you guessed it) fail.

Alternating between trying and failing and accepting the unacceptable, I was like Sisyphus, the king of Corinth. He was condemned for eternity to roll a huge stone up a hill in Hades — only to have the boulder roll back down to the starting point … again and again and again and again.

What made the difference for me was when I admitted I would need help to do this right. Once I broke through this barrier, I assembled an inspiring team to teach me new habits: a trainer (Gayle Lossman), physical therapist (John Sievert) and nurse (Debbie Wagner).

Other people I’ve interviewed shared the same breakthrough experience, although the forms of help varied. For example, one person turned to prayer, and another had her husband join her in her fitness goals. Some joined a weight loss group, while others joined a gym.

One employee organized co-workers who took a “virtual walk” across the United States — adding up real miles from their local walks to show how far they’d gone in U.S. map miles. Another woman began with a candid talk with her physician.

The question, however, remains: Why did it take me so long for me to admit I needed help? And why does it take others so long as well?

The answer lies partly in our personalities, and also in our culture. Self-reliance is a strongly held virtue in the United States. When I look back on my upbringing on a farm in Iowa, I can see how self-sufficiency would seem to be the natural order of the universe.

We milked our cow, Brindle. We plucked vegetables from the garden and apples from the orchard, and gathered eggs from the henhouse. When my parents built a new house, everyone pounded nails and carried boards. Although dictated by economic necessity, self-sufficiency eventually became a virtue in its own right.

As an adult, this trait served me well. Like all good qualities, though, it has its limits — the obvious one being that I was very slow to ask for help when I needed it. But once I admitted I couldn’t make changes on my own, the walls in the maze tumbled down and I could see the cheese.

An unwillingness to ask for help may be the biggest obstacle when we seek to make lifestyle changes. Even so, the story doesn’t magically end when we realize that we need help. We still have to find people and programs to meet each of our needs. But until we recognize the futility of repeatedly heading down the same path, we're not free to explore other options. And that makes for a tough, frustrating and ultimately elusive quest for the cheese.

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