Physical Habits

Habit and Food.--Most of our likes and dislikes for food are neither

physical nor physiological, but simply habitual. We have become

accustomed to certain things, and so we like them. We are unaccustomed

to them, and do not care for them. It is amusing when people put

forward these lacks of habituation as if they were physiological

idiosyncracies. Many thin people do not like butter and milk. The real

reason for this is not any peculiarity of digestion, or any gastric

incompatibility, at least in 99 cases out of every 100, but the mere

fact that they are not habituated to their use. That is one of the

reasons why they are thin. Our tastes for curious foreign foods are

nearly all deliberately acquired. Not one in ten ordinary Americans

likes olives or caviar when first tasted. Nearly every curious article

of food is "caviar to the general" at first trial. Later it becomes

impossible to understand how we could have had any objection to them.

At times, even an actual craving for them asserts itself as a

consequence of the habitual use, and then deprivation means positive


Slow Eating.--One of the most valuable habits that a man can

cultivate, but one of the most difficult to acquire in our time, is

that of eating slowly. Most Americans bolt their food to a degree that

would be quite appalling to them if they realized what they were

doing. Pieces of potatoe as large as the end of the thumb are

swallowed. Bread and milk may be eaten so hurriedly as to be as potent

a source of digestive disturbance as fried onions. There seems no

doubt from what we know of Fletcher's experience and Chittendan and

Follin's studies that a man derives more nutrition from food that is

masticated properly, that he can get along and do his work on less

material and that, above all, there is not the same tendency for him

to put on weight that is so common among people after reaching middle


Sir Andrew Clarke used to have his patients chew a definite number ol

times on each bite--say thirty times. Even so great a man as Gladstone

submitted to this rule and gradually learned to accustom himself to

eating very slowly. Fletcher's system of chewing the food until it

passes down the esophagus of itself without any swallowing effort is a

better rule. It is a surprise to most people how unconsciously

swallowing can be accomplished in this way and how little liquid is

needed in order to prepare food to be swallowed. The formation of the

habit, however, is not an easy one. Persistence and frequent reminders

are needed, or else the beginnings of the habit are soon dissipated

and old bolting habits reassert themselves.

Water Drinking.--In drinking, habit is as supreme as in eating. The

majority of people who work outside and perform muscular labor crave

and take an abundance of water. Many of those who live indoors,

especially in steam-heated houses, may need it quite as much if not

more, but get out of the habit of drinking water. As we need about

three quarts of water per day for use in our economy, this no water

habit often becomes a serious factor in the production of

physiological disturbances. We have replaced water drinking and the

milk drinking of the olden times by tea and coffee, and as these are

stimulants, habits form very readily with regard to them. I have known

people who were sure they would be miserable without their half-dozen

cups of tea or coffee each day, and who actually would be miserable

for a few days, when deprived of it. They were seriously impairing the

efficiency of their nervous system by so much stimulation.

Unfortunately, it is just those whose nervous systems have least

stability, and are already the subjects of more stimulation by

conscious introspection than is good for them, that are most likely to

form the tea and coffee habits, and who are most harmed by them,

though they find it hard to understand the reason therefor.

Air and Exercise Habits.--Habits with regard to exercise and fresh air

are particularly important. In this matter it is only habit that can

be really helpful. To work at high pressure indoors for several days,

and then, when one is quite on edge, to take a lot of severe physical

exercise is not good. Every human being should go out between meals. I

am not one of those who believe much in exercise for exercise's

sake--what is needed is fresh air. Our sanatorium patients who sit

out-doors all day have fine appetites. The advice to a busy man that

he must form the habit of being out between every two meals for from

half an hour to an hour would usually evoke a strenuous protest, but

all he needs to do is to get up half an hour earlier and walk down to

his office, and if he will walk back in the evening he will have

plenty of air and exercise between his meals.

Change of Habits.--Patients do not want to change their habits. They

come to a doctor to be treated. They want some medicine that will,

without further inconvenience, rid them of certain discomforting

symptoms. At the beginning, at least, patients resent interference

with their habits. They are quite satisfied, and to modify them

requires an effort that must be continued for some time. The changing

of old habits and the formation of new habits are most important for

the ordinary ills to which mankind is prone. Modifications of habit

constitute real hygiene and are not mere corrections of symptoms,

permitting the habits that have led up to them to go on.

Patients may conclude that it is too much trouble to change their

habits. We all know persons who feel that they can not give up their

coffee. As to whether or not the modification of a habit is worth the

trouble it involves, the patient must be the judge after the case is

put properly before him. It is possible that he may learn to endure

the inconvenience given him by his symptoms rather than to stand the

inconvenience of changing a nicely settled habit, and forming a new

one. The reward should be put very plainly before him, however, and

besides, the consequences of his habit in the future should be

suggested so that he may realize just what it will lead to.

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