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Lifestyle changes work when you choose something you love

A version of this commentary appeared in the Huffington Post, Hamilton Spectator and the Guelph Mercury

Now that we’ve kicked off a new year, not a day passes without some news outlet asking me for tips on healthy living. What do I need to eat more (or less) of? What type of exercise is best and how many minutes a day do I need?

My answer generally comes down to asking a simple question in return: Would you really want to give up something you enjoy? Or, even less likely, do you really want to start doing something you don’t?

Let us assume that there is now conclusive evidence that playing just 20 minutes of violin a day substantially reduces your risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and even male-pattern baldness.

Based on these finding, Health Canada launches a major initiative proclaiming the benefits of violin playing for health.

There is now a whole industry of personal violin trainers, and you can sign up for violin sessions at your local YMCA (which has thrown out the exercise machines to make more room for the violin enthusiasts).  Magazines and bloggers opinionate on whether it matters what music you play on your instrument and proffer expert advice on the best instruments and latest accessories.

There is a lively debate on whether playing the fiddle or viola has the same health benefits as the violin. Can it, perhaps, be any string instrument played with a bow? Does it matter whether the bow has real horsehair or the strings are catgut?

Does it matter whether you play for expression or speed? Alone or with friends? And why just 20 minutes? Wouldn’t 40 minutes or perhaps even a couple of hours a day make you even healthier. How about signing up for a stringathon?

At your next annual physical, your doctor asks, “And how many minutes of violin do you get in every day?” If you admit you don’t, here’s a copy of Canada’s Violin Guide extolling the many health benefits of violin practice.

And once you play regularly, you may even experience the violinist’s high. You will be on the perfect path to violin addiction!

But now imagine that you happen to be someone who simply hates violin.

You have no sense of tone or rhythm, the very thought of picking up the instrument (any instrument) makes you want to stay in bed. Perhaps memories of the hated violin teacher ruined it for you in grade school. Perhaps you were the one always picked last for the class ensemble.

The people who love their violin do not understand. Why are you choosing not to play when everything points to the benefits? And it is just 20 minutes, is that too much to expect?

Interestingly enough, it turns out that you are by no means in the minority. According to the latest Canadian Community Health Survey, 95% of Canadians fail to achieve even the minimum 100 minutes of recommended weekly violin.

It is not that most Canadians do not like the violin. They do love listening to and watching violin concerts, they just don’t like playing it themselves. In fact, over the past years several new violin channels have popped up on TV. There are now national and international violin competitions.

And yet, most people will simply refuse to pick up the violin. This, despite the tax credits offered to violin players. Do we really have to discuss taxes and higher health premiums for non-players?

Why are these people digging their own graves by simply refusing to pick up the violin? Don’t these people get it?

Well, they get it alright. They simply don’t enjoy the violin — no matter the health benefits.

Violins aside, here’s the bottom line: If you want to improve your health this new year, make sure you take up something you love to do.  If you choose something you despise, you’ll only last a few weeks at most.  For healthy habits to stick, they have to be in place for the long-term, regular – and fun (or at least, not unpleasant).

Choose small, attainable goals, regular habits that you’ll enjoy completing.  It might mean a 20 minute daily walk or an increase in delicious whole foods over processed foods.  It might mean joining a team sport or making the time for more home cooked meals.

But it should always be something you enjoy doing, and something that you can probably stick with for a lifetime.

Arya M. Sharma, MD, is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, Professor and Chair in Obesity at the University of Alberta and Scientific Director of the Canadian Obesity Network.  

February 2013

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.