Is ‘Just Do It’ Bad Advice?


clergy-at-spirited-life-workshopClergy generally have very few opportunities to focus on their own health and well-being, to take time away to reflect on how they are doing, or to simply participate in a worship service without leading it. But in each of the past three years, the Duke Clergy Health Initiative has given them that opportunity. From January to March we have hosted a series of three-day workshops across North Carolina for clergy entering our Spirited Life program.

Spirited Life workshops serve a dual purpose: to introduce clergy to the staff and the resources they will have access to over the coming two years of the program, and to give pastors the space to reflect on the current state of their health and the vision they have for it.

We recognize that pastors come to this gathering in different states of readiness for change – some arrive raring to go; others are more reticent. And even those who have identified a facet of their health that they wish to address may encounter challenges along the way. Nike might tell us to “JUST DO IT,” but making changes and sticking to them is much harder. So early on in the program, we share with clergy a model that James O. Prochaska of the University of Rhode Island and his colleagues developed to better understand how the process of change works.

Prochaska concluded that behavior change is something that happens in stages, and that it has an upwardly spiraling effect. The following graphic illustrates the various stages and how movement between those stages takes place.

  1. Pre-contemplation – No intention of changing behavior
  2. Contemplation – Aware that a problem exists, but no commitment to action
  3. Preparation – Intent upon taking action
  4. Action – Active modification of behavior
  5. Maintenance – Sustained change: new behavior replaces old; generally recognized as a habit sustained for six months or more
  6. Relapse – Fall back into old patterns of behavior

What this model tells us is that relapse – falling away from one’s goals – is an expected part of the change cycle. It is not synonymous with failure, provided we use the experience as an opportunity to learn. By examining the situation – What triggered the relapse? What was going well beforehand? What caused me to break from that practice? – we become better prepared to resist the same temptations and distractions the next time we arrive at a place of sustained behavior change. Moreover, we don’t return to point zero after a relapse. The awareness of the goal already exists; therefore, we start further along the change cycle, with the benefit of additional strength and wisdom.

Equally important: it’s not necessary to tackle every goal at once. Someone who is actively engaging in more physical activity (Action Stage) may only be thinking about seeking help for depression (Contemplation Stage). Spirited Life provides clergy with a safe space to air the challenges they face at each stage of the process, and offers staff who are trained to listen and encourage. To learn more, visit our website.

— Kate Rugani

Image by Caren Swanson; stages of change diagram courtesy of

Monday Giveaway #3: Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit


“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”– John Dryden

habitIn The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg does not give away a secret formula for changing our deeply ingrained habits. Instead, he offers something equally intriguing — a framework for understanding them. He insists that if habits can be changed, we must first understand how they work. To that end, he delivers chapters that are with scientific research and compelling stories, building on a different aspect of why habits exist and how they function in our personal lives, our business, and our larger culture.

Duhigg describes the brain’s habit-forming process as being a three-step loop.


First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain which habit to use. Then there is the routine, the acting out of the habit itself. This routine doesn’t have to be physical; it could be mental or emotional as well. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

So do you want the good news or the bad news? Let’s rip the band-aid off first.

Unless we figure out how our bad habits work, we can’t undo them. Our brains can’t tell the difference between a good habit and a bad habit. They’re just habits. So if our habit is to eat a chocolate chip cookie every day at 3 pm, it is pretty likely that tomorrow our habit will literally pull us to the bakery.

That’s rather bleak. Now for the good news.

We can make new habits! The brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit. Habit-making is encoded into the structures of our brain. On one level, this is a huge advantage for us: habits allow the brain to perform everyday tasks without conscious thought. Without habit loops, our brains would quickly shut down, overwhelmed by the detail of daily life.

Have you ever experienced pulling into your driveway and not remembering the details of your drive home? Driving home safely has become a habit which allows you to think about your grocery list and getting dinner on the table.

To change a habit, we must learn to create new neurological routines that overpower those behaviors, forcing bad tendencies into the background. With some help and intentional work, we can figure out our habit loops, identify the cues, the routine that occurs, and the reward we receive. In doing so, we gain power over our habits and can begin to shift our behavior.

  • What habit(s) do you struggle to change? Identify the behavior or routine.
  • What need gets met by the reward? Experiment with rewards: what’s valuable or meaningful?
  • What triggers your behavior? Isolate the cue.

Then, reframe the habit by creating a new habit plan: When I see [cue], I will do [routine], in order to get [reward].

Changing habits is really, really hard work. Biologically, it was meant to be so. But understanding more about how habits work can help us make plans of action. When we have a plan, and a lot of support from people around us, we can all develop new habits that eventually will become old habits.


Going for a walk around the block at 3 pm can replace our bakery run and become as mindless as brushing our teeth.

You do brush your teeth, don’t you?

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”            -Romans 12:2

Kelli Sittser

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This week we are giving away one copy of The Power of Habit!

There are 3 ways to be entered in our giveaway – just make sure to tell us what you did so we can count your entry!

  1. Take a moment to look back through the blog and find a post that catches your attention, then leave a comment with what you like about it!  ( = 1 entry)
  2. “Like” the Clergy Health Initiative’s facebook page! ( = 1 entry)
  3. Share our blog with 5 friends, and tell them about the giveaway! ( = 1 entry)

You can enter as many times as you’d like, just make sure to leave us a comment ON THIS POST with how many entries are “due” to you! That’s right, if you e-mailed 25 friends (or tagged them in a post on Facebook) about the giveaway, and liked our Facebook page, and left a comment on a previous post, you would be entered 7 times! Thanks for celebrating with us by participating in the giveaway!

A winner will be drawn at random on Friday morning, May 24, so be sure to get all your entries logged by 10 a.m. EDT Friday.

And the winner is Laura Stern!  Congratulations!  Please contact us Laura, and let us know where to mail your copy of this book!

Thanks to all who commented here on the blog or on our facebook page, and for supporting the work of the blog!  

Check back with us for details on our final May giveaway next Monday!


Monday Giveaway #2: Fitbit (plus other fitness gadgets and apps)


7418728612_d2f66668d3_bIn previous posts, we shared several nutrition and fitness apps that help you plan and keep track of your health habits.  While most apps on the market today don’t have clinical research to back them up, researchers are starting to look into the technology’s effectiveness, and the initial results look promising!

A recent Northwestern University study found that people who used a mobile food and activity tracking app alongside of another weight loss program lost an average of 15 pounds (and kept the weight off for a year!).  Even those participants who used the app alone lost an average of 8 pounds.  Below are some new apps and other gadgets that make a healthier lifestyle more attainable and maybe even more fun!

(Be sure to read to the bottom — we’re giving one of these beauties away!)

Fitbit: Wear this small device to track your daily activity (steps, distance, calories burned, sleep cycle); your information is wirelessly synced to your computer and mobile device.  Use the companion app to set goals, log your food intake, track your progress, and share/compete with friends.  The Fitbit comes in three small and stylish options: One, Zip, and Flex (new!). Price range: $59 to $99

Withings Smart Body Analyzer: This “health tracking scale” instantly gives you your weight, body composition (% body fat) and heart rate; then it automatically transmits this information to a companion smartphone app where you can keep track of your progress, note trends, and get help with your goals. Price: $149.95

Fooducate: Use this website or smartphone app to learn which foods at your local grocery store pack the most nutritious punch.  Using a scientific formula, this program gives letter grades (A-F) to thousands of products so that you can pick the more nutritious items.  You can take a picture of the product’s barcode with your smartphone to get an instant and easy-to-follow report of the product’s contents, to compare it to other products, and to select a healthier alternative.  Price: Free

GymPact: Put your money where your muscles are with this mobile app!  Decide how many days a week you want to work out; select a cash amount that you would be willing to pay if you do NOT work out.  When you work out, check into your gym using the GymPact app (includes a GPS tracking feature), track log at-home workout with the GymPact Anywhere app, or log your outdoor exercise time in the RunKeeper app.  The money paid by those who do NOT exercise is divided up and distributed to all the exercisers.  The more you exercise, the more money you earn, but if you miss a day of exercise, you have to pay up!  Price: Free

Lift: This app extends beyond physical health.  Select good habits that you want to increase the frequency and consistency of in your life.  Examples of habits include: getting outside, pleasure reading, flossing, learning a new skill, spending time with friends, exercising, drinking more water, etc. Use the app to set goals, track your progress, and share your success with friends.  Price: Free

The key to all of these apps?  They encourage you to set goals, track calories and activity, and use social media for social support.

–Katie Huffman

Post adapted from “Better Homes and Gardens” (May 2013), “Fitness 2.0” page 187.

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fitbitWe are so excited to announce that this week we are giving away a Fitbit ZIP!

There are 3 ways to be entered in our giveaway–just make sure to tell us what you did so we can count your entry!

  1. Take a moment to look back through the blog and find a post that catches your attention, then leave a comment with what you like about it!  ( = 1 entry)
  2. “Like” the Clergy Health Initiative’s facebook page! ( = 1 entry)
  3. Share our blog with 5 friends, and tell them about the giveaway! ( = 1 entry)

You can enter as many times as you’d like, just make sure to leave us a comment ON THIS POST with how many entries are “due” to you! That’s right, if you e-mailed 25 friends (or tagged them in a post on Facebook) about the giveaway, and liked our Facebook page, and left a comment on a previous post, you would be entered 7 times! Thanks for celebrating with us by participating in the giveaway!

A winner will be drawn at random on Friday morning, May 17, so be sure to get all your entries logged by 10 a.m. EDT Friday.

Thanks to ALL who supported the blog this week by leaving comments, “liking” the Duke Clergy Health Initiative Facebook page, and telling your friends! This week’s giveaway is now closed! And now, (drumroll, please!) the winner of the Fitbit is Erica!  Congratulations!  Please contact us Erica, and let us know where to mail your Fitbit.

Check back next Monday for details on our next giveaway!

Overwhelmed by abundance


Too Many ChoicesIn a recent article at The New Republic, Tim Wu argues that for most Americans and Westerners, the abundance we’ve worked hard to create is now suffocating us.

Over the last century, mainly through the abundance project, we have created a world where avoiding constant decisions is nearly impossible. We have created environments that are designed to destroy our powers of self-control by creating constant choices among abundant options. The path of least resistance leads to a pile of debt, a fat body, and an enormous cable bill; strenuous daily efforts are required to avoid that fate.

What a stark contrast to the true abundance that God offers! When God provided manna to Israel, there was enough for each day, enabling the people to continue their journey and perform their duties. But our society’s abundance, enough for far more than the day, makes us slow and lethargic, neglectful of our callings. When Israel tried to horde enough manna for tomorrow, they found what always occurs when we go beyond God’s provision: “it bred worms and stank” (Exodus 16:20, KJV).

So what can we do, as children locked in an endless candy store? A common answer is that we just need to “grow-up,” to learn some self-control and act like self-restrained adults. But Wu points out, citing the work of researchers Baumeister and Tierney, that this may not be as simple as it sounds:

One possible solution is to double-down on the self-control, and train ourselves to better resist temptation and stick with the program. But…there are good reasons to suspect that relying on willpower alone will not work in an environment designed to destroy it…Humans have tested and tried self-control in the face of temptation, and it has repeatedly been found wanting. After decades of dieting and good nutrition, Americans are fatter than ever…[We] have created conditions that exhaust our willpower, more or less guaranteeing failure.

So if strengthening our resolve and trusting in self-discipline won’t see us through this avalanche of abundance, what will? Is there no balm in our Gilead of choices?

It is time, as Baumeister and Tierney would agree, to think systematically about the human environments that we are creating with technological powers only imagined by previous generations. It is time to take seriously the problems of overload and excess as collective, social challenges, even though they may be our own creations.

We don’t need more discipline over ourselves; we need more creativity over our environments. I knew one friend who would turn her monitor off at work so that internet browsing would be less of a temptation. Some people set fruits and vegetables front and center in their refrigerators so that they’re easier to see and snack on. One pastor I know changed his route home so he avoids passing fast food traps.

How can we make living well less of a decision and more of a destiny?

–Tommy Grimm

(Image by flickr user justmakeit /via Creative Commons.)

Loving your future self


Drop-Dead-HealthyIn Drop Dead Healthy, A. J. Jacobs (author of The Year of Living Biblically) narrates his epic quest for health perfection. He begins with a body he likens to “a python that swallowed a goat” and fastidiously pursues “maximal health from head to toe.” He writes as a wellness wannabe, not as a nutritional-fitness guru, and his self-deprecating humor and light tone makes the book an easy introduction to various realms of wellness, such as sleeping better, avoiding dangerous germs, and preserving your hearing.

Part of his mission is to begin exercising more (as he puts it, “losing my gym virginity”), and one tactic he finds helpful comes from the field of “egonomics.”

Egonomics is a theory by a Nobel Prize-winning economist named Thomas Schelling. Schelling proposes that we essentially have two selves. Those two selves are often at odds. There’s the present self, that wants that frosted apple strudel Pop-Tart. And the future self, that regrets eating that frosted apple strudel Pop-Tart.

The key to making healthy decisions is to respect your future self. Honor him or her. Treat him or her like you would treat a friend or a loved one (p. 48).

5799948301_99c92573f1_zThis is easier said than done, right? We all have a general idea of what decisions in the present will make for a better life in the future: plenty of sleep, more spinach, less cage fighting, etc. But human nature gives us a penchant for preferring present gains over future losses. How do we value our future wellness, when that present donut looks so deliciously satisfying?

Jacobs solution was to use an iPhone app (HourFace) that digitally aged his photo. “My face sagged and became splotchy–I looked like I had some sort of biblical skin disease.” He printed out his elder self and taped it to his office wall. The result?

When I’m wavering about whether to lace up my running sneakers or not, I’ll catch sight of Old A.J. Respect your elder, as disturbing-looking as he may be. This workout is for him.

[My] future self needs to be around for my sons. They deserve to know him (pp. 48-50).

What strategies do you use to remember to respect your elder self?

Tommy Grimm


image by flickr user djwtwo via creative commons



Get up, stand up!


Lately I’ve been feeling very “desk-bound” at work, and having a good deal of back pain from sitting for prolonged periods of time.  I’ve been inspired to put my computer up on boxes on my desk, so that I can stand for a while at work.  I wish that I had a nice large Mac desktop like the one in this picture, but my basic Dell laptop actually makes it that much easier to improvise. I know that pastors also spend a lot of time sitting–in the car, across the kitchen table talking with parishioners, alongside hospital beds, reading or writing sermons–so I thought you might be interested in some of the resources I’ve found for getting around the problems of having a “desk job.”

First of all, my concern about my own office practices are underscored by a growing body of research pointing out the hazards of sitting for long stretches, even for people who exercise regularly.  A December article in the New York Times pointed out that:

…scientists have determined that after an hour or more of sitting, the production of enzymes that burn fat in the body declines by as much as 90 percent. Extended sitting, they add, slows the body’s metabolism of glucose and lowers the levels of good (HDLcholesterol in the blood. Those are risk factors toward developing heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Or, as this image more bluntly reminds us (click through to the full infographic for the hard facts):

So, back to my improvised standing desk:  this article has some great suggestions for inexpensive, do-it-yourself ways to get your computer up off your desk.  I love some of these creative solutions!

But what about those other times in the day when we find ourselves sitting?  I have tried to train myself to stand up when I am talking on the phone with pastors, or at the very least to do some simple neck and shoulder stretches.  I know some colleagues who always do their phone calls while walking outside if the weather is nice, and I’ve also talked to pastors who have made it their practice to walk with parishioners instead of meeting with them in their office.

At the end of the day, we are not going to be able to avoid sitting altogether, but research points to the efficacy of improving our activity levels in small ways.  Instead of emailing a colleague, I walk across the office to talk with her in person.  I am working on increasing the amount of water I drink each day, but instead of bringing in a huge water bottle, I prompt myself to go fill a cup with fresh water every hour, which at least has me getting up and walking to the staff kitchen periodically.  And there are certainly some fancy chairs out there to keep us comfy, but, as this New York Times article points out, the best way to treat back pain from sitting?  STAND UP!

Caren Swanson

Click here for another post from The Connection on dealing with low back pain.

image courtesy of

If not for aesthetics, then why?


In his book The Cure for Everything, health-policy expert Timothy Caulfield tries to dispel various myths related to health and happiness. In his chapter about fitness, I was struck by a point about exercise by Todd Miller, a professor in the Department of Exercise Science at George Washington University.

People don’t [care] about health. People don’t say, “Wow, you have great blood pressure,” or “Check out that [person’s] cholesterol.” They may say they care about being healthy, but they really don’t…People want to look good, and they equate looks with health. The entire fitness and physical-activity industry is built on this reality. It is driven by aesthetics (p. 5).

Obviously, this is a cynical generalization, but I’ve been reminded of it every time I’ve seen a health magazine or commercial. Adonis-like figures are all over the place, implicitly promising me that if I buy their products and follow their routines, I too can be a buff beach-side beauty.

Caulfield believes research demonstrates that Miller has a point.

Research has shown that people do, in fact, care mostly about appearances; at least, this is one of the biggest motivators for exercising….Yes, there are vast cultural and age-related complexities associated with the issue of exercise motivation…, but looks and weight control (for the purpose of looks) are constant themes in almost every study (p. 5).

This creates an interesting challenge for Christians. As Lent reminds us, we take seriously that we are fragile creatures, that life is fleeting, and that true contentment is not found in personal health reform efforts. But just as Lent gives way to Easter, and Death to Life, is it possible that something as mundane as our motivation to be healthy might also be transformed?  Could it lie in the possibility that as healthier individuals, we might better serve others and live into the calling God has given us?

In Spirited Life, we feel privileged to journey with pastors as they explore these questions. To focus on one area of health, many have found that exercise has decreased their stress and given them more energy; it has helped them to prepare mentally for church meetings and bible studies and strengthened their discipleship.

As Christians and pastors, how have you wrestled to find a faithful motivation to exercise?

Tommy Grimm

photo by flickr user Thomas Hawk, via creative commons

Is there a nest in your hair?


As soon as I saw the title, it was impossible for me to pass up reading Dr. Mike Bechtle’s book, People Can’t Drive You Crazy if You Don’t Give Them the Keys. And I was not disappointed!

One the highlights for me is summed up in the following quote:

“You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head,
but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair.”

In other words, you cannot always prevent a negative thought from entering your mind, but you do have the ability to prevent that thought from taking root. I find this encouragement incredibly liberating because it acknowledges a struggle.  Negative thoughts inevitably arise. They cannot be completely avoided, no matter how hard we try. And yet, we have the ability to to combat them. Spiritual warfare, anyone?

I’m sure a few pastors have had to wrestle against thoughts like, ‘They think I am a bad leader!’ or ‘I wonder if they think I’m qualified for this?’ or ‘There is no way I’ll ever get this weight off!” or “Did God really call me for this?” Negative thoughts exist.

Behavior change is hard, and our society can be pretty unforgiving about our humanity, our propensity to try and fail. And try again and fail again. Rinse and repeat. But a lot of the challenge is in our heads. And we don’t need to let a nest form by dwelling on our failures.

Regardless of where you are in your pursuits of health and wellness, please consider encouragement from Philippians 4:8 that says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

I would also like to offer a less theological, but nonetheless insightful perspective from a 3-year old named Jessica who takes a more proactive approach to positive thinking.

– Angela MacDonald
(Image courtesy of

One word


There’s a new approach to New Year’s resolutions that has been popping up in my corner of the blogosphere in the last few years, and it’s one of those concepts that must be good, because I can’t get it out of my head.

People have been writing candidly about the pressure that they place on themselves to be a certain person, to act in a certain way, to practice certain behaviors — and hypothesizing that our proclivity for making resolutions can sometimes reinforce or validate that pressure.  In response, some are choosing to forgo creating a list of daunting New Year’s resolutions.  Instead, they are focusing on a single word for the year, a word to ponder, to be shaped by, to live into.

Here’s inspiration from Alece Ronzino, a woman who started a website that invites people to share their “one word” and the stories of how it has shaped their lives:

I’ve lived most of my life by SHOULDS. Growing up, I was the all-American good girl. I did well in school. I went on mission trips. I moved to Africa when I was 19 to serve as a missionary. I did everything “right.” By the book. The way I was supposed to, expected to, told to. The way I should.

But the treadmill of striving is exhausting.

She goes on to write about how the routine of making resolutions every January and then not meeting them made her feel like a failure.

So I began choosing just One Word as I step into a new year. One word that sums up who I want to be, or a character trait I want to develop, or an attribute I want to intentionally add to my life.

And since it’s just one word, it’s easy to remember. I place reminders of it around my home and workspace, and I inevitably start seeing and hearing it everywhere, which helps me stay mindful of it…

My One Word isn’t another to-do list. It’s simply a guide as I make decisions, set plans, and go about my every day.

And I’ve seen these words shape not only my year, but also myself. They’ve challenged me, inspired me, changed me. Such is the power of intentionality.

In the busyness of the holidays, I neither set resolutions nor chose “one word,” but I do like to set intentions for myself, so I might prayerfully choose a word and start my year in February.  If you’re inspired to do the same, let us know what word you chose!

Read Alece’s full blog post here.

Join up with Alece’s OneWord365 community here.

–Caren Swanson

Image courtesy of

Pastor Spotlight: Rev. Laura Hayes Mitchell: Minister, Mom and Marathoner


This piece is offered by my fellow wellness advocate, Lisa MacKenzie:

I first met the Rev. Laura Hayes Mitchell, pastor of Burgaw UMC in Burgaw, NC, at the 2011 Spirited Life winter workshop at Oak Island. While there, she shared with me that she had a vision of where she wanted to be with her health and what she wanted to do about it.

Before having children, Laura was a runner; therefore, her vision included wanting to run a 5K. But when you have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, how do you find time to get yourself conditioned for a race?  Talk about a challenge! Laura explained, “It’s fine if you have a live-in nanny, but some of us have to learn how to juggle responsibilities, and it’s particularly difficult if you’re a pastor without a predictable schedule.”

So Laura set goals based on her vision.  She made time for the gym, followed Naturally Slim, and began to think a 5K was within reach. She began to see that she needed to carve out the time regularly for herself. She noticed that she felt good and had more energy when she exercised.

Then, it was time for the first race. “What a hoot!” Laura reported. She finished the race with a “respectable time,” but more importantly, she emerged with even more motivation for longer races.

Since then, her family has cheered her on at her races, and her boys have discovered that Mom is quite the athlete. In fact, Owen, her youngest child, likes to stretch with her, and TJ, the big boy in the family, runs the last block with his Mom on her way home on Saturday mornings. After two years of hard work and perseverance, Laura has moved on to half-marathons and is feeling well. She says that “running has now become a habit.”

I found her last statement interesting, especially as I’m reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg draws on research in experimental and applied psychology along with neurology, highlighting just how interesting — and powerful — the brain really is!

Thanks, Laura, for inspiring us. It’s amazing how quickly habits can change!

— Lisa MacKenzie