Deal or No Deal: Rewarding Yourself With Healthy Choices

By Martha Michael

Rewarding Hard Work

Getting a new outfit after losing 10 pounds. Watching a movie after your homework’s done. Taking a long weekend after meeting a sales goal.

It’s not uncommon to reward yourself after completing a challenging task or seeing yourself through a long period of discipline. It’s a carrot you can dangle to encourage follow-through when you need it, a deal that serves to reinforce a successful process for the next hurdle that comes your way.

It’s a no-brainer to do this, right?

Just Say No Deal

There are certain types of rewards that can have a negative impact on your life, says Susan Biali, MD, in an article in Psychology Today. Specifically, those categories are sweets, spending, and alcohol.

These are the reward behaviors we joke about -- tying one on at the pub or loading up our credit cards with debt. But these types of “celebrations” can make your situation worse, she says, which you can gauge by asking yourself how you feel after you’ve indulged in one of your reward system reinforcements. If it’s buying yourself some career wear after successfully completing a long hiring process, you’ll probably say you feel good about it. But if you popped a cork and had a third helping of dessert to announce the completion of a successful weight loss program, chances are good you’ll regret it.

Stimulating the Dopamine Response

Sometimes our poor reward choices come from body chemistry, says University Health News. For instance, addiction -- even to caffeine -- may result from dopamine deficiency that isn’t addressed. But the irony is that the temporary high we get from unhealthy choices such as overspending or binge eating can lead to depression.

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that creates feelings of euphoria, motivation and concentration when neurons circulate in your nervous system. When there’s a shortage of dopamine in the brain, these messages do not reach nerve receptors, which then causes changes in movement, sleep, learning and/or mood.

Symptoms of dopamine deficiency include:

  • Apathy
  • Inconsistent sleep patterns
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in weight
  • Inability to concentrate

There are natural ways to counteract the effects of dopamine deficiency, such as adding foods to your diet with a high concentration of phenylalanine, which is converted to tyrosine, a chemical that increases dopamine. Examples of such foods include bananas, apples, yogurt, beans and eggs.

You can also improve the likelihood you’ll make good choices when you reward yourself if you lower your intake of caffeine and junk food. Coffee gives you that feel-good pick-me-up in the morning, but it’s only a temporary effect -- the rise you get in dopamine levels tends to decrease soon thereafter.

Instituting a healthy routine is a big dopamine boost. Eat right, exercise, and see the chiropractor regularly. When self-care is an ongoing part of your week, you’re more rested and retain more emotional control. Your brain recuperates through sleep and your neurotransmitter stores are recharged.

Treatment by your chiropractor optimizes the health of your nerve receptors, which means you benefit more fully from natural healing strategies.

Self-Care Rewards

Your incentives aren’t limited to diet. What about spending a day at the spa? Nothing says “You’re ahhsome” like a day of yoga, massage, and meditation as a reward for a job well done.

Maybe learn a new language. Then take a trip to use it. Travel is a great way to reward a new graduate or reach out to out-of-town relatives.

Pat yourself and your kids on the back after a successful spring cleaning project with an afternoon at Chuck E. Cheese or another play place.

Free Advice

An article on DevelopGoodHabits.com entitled “155 Ways to Reward Yourself” has several ideas for personal rewards that are free of charge.

You don’t have to purchase a coloring book to find pages for drawing or doodling. You can also visit with a friend or relative you haven’t seen in a while or hold a game night and pull out some of the old faithfuls gathering dust in the closet. Reopen Clue or Monopoly or create your own game of Charades.

If you prefer solitude, spend some time reading or looking at clouds. If you’ve got a big enough yard you can garden, and if there’s a hammock outside, you can literally hang out.

Changing your physical atmosphere or environment can sometimes feel like a free gift. You can pull out favorite placemats, candles or other décor, or simply rearrange the furniture.

If you prefer the outdoors, there are dog parks, sunsets, national parks, and the beach. You can play tennis, basketball or Frisbee for free and many people have access to free swimming and bike riding.

There’s nothing wrong with self-care as a reward, you just want to be sure the payoff matches the effort. For instance, buying yourself a new car because you cleaned the kitchen may be overkill. On the other hand, treating yourself to a manicure after finishing a backyard makeover might make sense.

Other suggestions include: hiring a housekeeper, getting your eyebrows waxed, trying a new hairstyle or spending time at the video arcade.

But none of these replace the more important results you get from continually locking in healthy rewards such as sleep, nutrition and chiropractic care. Neglecting those kinds of lifestyle choices can be a pretty big deal.

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