When it comes to health recommendations, we mostly know the drill: exercise most days, eat a varied and nutritious diet, keep body mass index in the normal range (18.5 to 24.9), get enough sleep (seven to eight hours a night), don’t smoke, and limit alcohol to one drink a day. What we do for ourselves in these areas is often more important than what medicine can offer us. Adopting a healthier lifestyle can affect not only your risk for disease and the way you feel today but also your health and ability to function independently in later life. Research shows that diet and exercise can add as much as a decade to our life expectancy.
But New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep, especially when they’re aimed at creating healthy behaviors such as weight loss, changing our eating habits and exercising more – adopting a new, healthy habit or breaking an old, bad one can be terribly difficult. Research suggests that any effort you make is worthwhile, even if you encounter set backs or find yourself backsliding from time to time.
So what can we do to increase our chances for success?
Research has shown that there are several factors that can help us remove roadblocks and increase our chances for success when it comes to creating healthier behaviors. All too often we frame our resolutions in negative language as we attempt to motivate ourselves through guilt, fear or regret – but long lasting change is more likely when it is self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking.
Studies have also shown that goals are easier to reach if they are specific – instead of saying “I’ll exercise more”, say “I’ll walk for 30 minutes everyday”. Create a timeline around specific short-term, medium-term and long-term goals and remember to be reasonable with your expectations, especially at the beginning. If you haven’t been very active, instead of buying a gym membership and expecting yourself to go 5 days a week, begin by walking 15 minutes everyday and increase from there.
Change is a process, not an event.
For decades, researchers have tried to understand the successes and failures associated with our attempts to get healthier – why do some things work for some people, at certain times and not for others? How can we make lasting healthy lifestyle changes?
One of the most widely applied models used in behaviour health is the transtheoretical model (TTM), sometimes called the stages of change. Developed in the 1980’s by alcoholism researchers James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente, this model suggests that at any given time a person is in one of five stages of change : precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action or maintenance. Each stage prepares us for the one to follow but according to researchers, it is important to remember that paths between stages are rarely straightforward – most people will recycle through one or more stages.
During this stage, we have no conscious intention of making a change, either because we lack the awareness that we need or we have tried and failed in the past. People in this stage tend to avoid reading, thinking or talking about their unhealthy habits, but their awareness or interest may be sparked by outside influences, such as the media, illness or concern from a clinician, friend or family member. In order to move past the precontemplation stage, we need to sense that the unhealthy behavior is preventing us from enjoying something important to us or achieving the personal goals we set for ourselves.
At this stage, we are aware that our behavior is a problem, but we have still not made the commitment to take action. Ambivalence can make us feel stuck as we weigh and re-weigh the benefits and costs. Creating a pro and con list can help us examine the barriers (the cons) and help us strategize ways of overcoming them. For example, many women find it difficult to find time to exercise regularly. If finding a 30-minute block of time for exercise is too difficult, perhaps finding two 15-minute blocks can be a solution. If you feel too self-conscious exercising in a gym or class, perhaps find an exercise video online. (Youtube is full of wonderful, free, 30 minute or less work out videos)
This stage is about where our New Year’s Resolution to get healthier has led us : we know we must change, believe that we can and are making plans to do so. Perhaps we’ve joined the gym, thrown away all of our junk food and bought a new pair of running shoes. At this stage, it is important to anticipate obstacles and create realistic goals. Instead of planning to go to the gym 5 days a week, begin with 2 or 3 times a week. Take the elevator instead of the stairs or plan to take a 15 minute walk each day and work your way up from there.
At this stage we have changed our behavior and begun to face life without our old habits – but we must constantly remind ourselves of our motivation; if necessary, write down the reasons for making changes and read them everyday. Let others know about the changes you are making and get support from those who care about you.
Once we have practiced our new behavior for six months, we are in the maintenance stage. Now we must focus on integrating our new habits and preventing ourselves from falling back into the old ones. At this stage, just like the one before, it is important to remind ourselves of our motivations and recognize the achievements we have made. Remember, it is always important for us to recognize the hard work we see in ourselves.
Rinse and repeat
As mentioned before, the path between stages is rarely straightforward – most of us will recycle through one or more stages before reaching long lasting change. Relapse is coming and perhaps even inevitable and should be viewed as an integral part of the process – if everyone who attempted to lose weight did so on their first attempt, we would have no need for this article! Maybe the strategy you adopted didn’t fit your lifestyle or your priorities. Maybe life threw you a curveball and now you need to find new ways to adapt to it. Next time, you can learn from your past experiences, make adjustments and have more tools in your arsenal as you continue on the path to change.