Change is hard. You know that healthy habits will change your life for the better, but they don’t always stick despite your best intentions to implement them. Many things motivate us to make health behavior changes. Maybe it’s an upcoming reunion, a New Year’s Resolution, or a health scare. Whatever the reason is to make health behavior changes, these four guidelines are the best-kept secrets to help make the changes last.
1. Say “no” to fad diets and make overall healthy choices.
Fad diets can be defeating. Many fads require dramatic change, promise quick weight loss, and are meant to be followed for a short time. Some fads include The Blood Type Diet, The Baby Food Diet, and cleanse-type diets. It can be easy to lose your motivation on this type of plan. Fad diets typically don’t result in sustained health improvements. While keeping your weight in a healthy range contributes to good health, don’t overlook the importance of consistently making healthy food choices.
Making healthy food choices may help you lose weight and dramatically impacts your risk for many diseases. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2012, over 700,000 deaths were due to chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.
In this study, dietary risk factors were examined, and too much the following foods were found to increase the risk of chronic diseases:
- Foods rich in sodium – such as soy sauce, soups, and processed foods
- Sugary drinks – such as sports drinks, soda, and fruit punch
- Red meats, both unprocessed and processed – such as beef, sausage, and bacon
The same study found that consuming too little of the following foods also increase the risk of chronic diseases:
- Fruits – such as oranges, grapes, and kiwi
- Vegetables – such as carrots, spinach, and beets
- Nuts and seeds – such as walnuts, pecans, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds
- Whole grains – such as wheat, quinoa, oats, and popcorn
- Polyunsaturated fats – such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds
- Seafood sources of omega-3 fatty acids – such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel
How To Get Started:
- Try following a Mediterranean diet. This diet includes lots of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. Following this eating method can help prevent heart disease, depression, cognitive decline, and certain types of cancer.
- Eating a plant-based diet can help you improve your health and reduce your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure, as well as many other diseases.
- Choose a specific goal such as vowing to eat 2 additional cups of vegetables every day or replacing one sugary drink per day with naturally-flavored seltzer.
2. Make a commitment to exercise regularly.
Regular exercise helps maintain heart health and prevent type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and many other diseases. When exercise is not a part of your lifestyle, it can be hard to know how to get started.
How To Get Started:
- Find someone to exercise with. Having a standing appointment with a friend to take a walk or go to the gym can keep you going.
- Pick activities you enjoy, and don’t be tempted to do activities that are too strenuous as you begin exercising.
- Choose a variety of activities to fend off boredom, and consider less formal exercise such as putting on your favorite music and dancing in your living room for a half-hour.
- If you join a gym, make sure your gym is nearby and accessible.
- Choose a specific goal, such as walking for 20 minutes every day on your lunch break and doing 10 minutes of stretching after your walk.
3. Make healthy sleep a priority.
Running yourself ragged trying to get one more thing done usually leads to skimping on sleep, leading to skimping on other healthy habits such as eating healthfully and regular exercise. Getting enough restful sleep can help avoid the added strain of overeating and making poor food choices.
How To Get Started:
- Set a bedtime and stick to it. Whatever you have left to do, you can finish the next day when you’ll be more rested and productive.
- Establish a relaxing routine at bedtime. Shut down all screens at least one hour before going to sleep, and meditate or listen to relaxing music.
- If you are experiencing insomnia, see your healthcare professional to come up with a solution.
- Choose a specific goal such as reading a book for 15 minutes before sleep or doing 10 minutes of meditation before bed.
4. Make a plan that gives you the support to make health behavior changes that last.
When trying to make permanent lifestyle changes, it’s important to be patient with yourself. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, making lasting health behavior changes involves several steps. As you make these changes, start thinking about what stage of change you might be in.
- Contemplation Stage – also known as the “getting ready” stage, it can take months to consider the changes you want to make. It’s okay to be excited about your new habits but be aware that you need this time to contemplate the changes this will have on your lifestyle.
- Preparation Stage – you’re getting closer to making a change, usually about one month away, and if you’ve made a list of “pros” and “cons,” and the “pros” are winning.
- Action Stage – this is the stage where you begin to make actual changes. Caution: relapse is likely if you haven’t considered the contemplation and preparation stages fully. Give yourself time to recommit to these new behaviors.
- Maintenance Stage– you’ve fully embraced changes at this stage! You make time for your new lifestyle changes and find joy in them, and if you hit a roadblock, you get right back on track.
How To Get Started:
- Workplace health promotion – check out the resources where you work. Some workplaces have meetings and access to healthcare professionals. If you don’t have a support system at work to meet with colleagues, start one.
- Enlist the help of a friend, mentor, or coach to help you stay motivated.
- Keep a journal or use an app to track your progress.
- Join an online community to help with weight loss.
- Find motivation for your fitness goals.
- Choose a specific goal, such as finding an app to track eating or exercise and making a commitment to use the app for one week.
To make lasting health behavior changes you will need to pay attention to food choices and lifestyle habits such as exercise and sleep. These habits are the cornerstone of maintaining health, and each of these habits rounds out a healthy routine. For example, regular exercise can lead to improved sleep, whereas insufficient sleep can lead to skipped workouts and overeating.
It is possible to follow a realistic, achievable plan to help you get healthier. Set specific goals and allow yourself time to adjust to change. Choose your lifestyle goals based on science rather than the latest fad.
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