Around the holidays I speak with a lot of people who are generally aware that they should (exercise more | eat better | lose weight), and look to the new year as a ripe opportunity to improve their health. But despite their general motivation, they’re often uncertain about what their goals are, and how to go about achieving them.
I can recall a younger version of myself, when asked, enthusiastically lecturing people about the myriad benefits of (exercising more | eating better | losing weight), often followed by a pep talk that vaguely resembled a Nike commercial monologue.
Though this was personally gratifying, I eventually realized, it was probably not very helpful.
So after years researching the connections between health and behavior, I’ve developed a different approach altogether. I hope that for those of you looking to make a positive change in your health as your new years resolution, you’ll find it helpful! To begin, start by asking yourself the following questions:
1. Why do you want to change?
Before you attempt to make a change, it’s important to ask yourself why you want to change your behavior to begin with. Understand your motivation:
- Are you concerned about your health?
- About looking good?
- About feeling better?
- Have you recently been told by a doctor that you’re at ‘high risk’?
It’s also important to be honest with yourself about how much you want to change and what you are willing to do to get where you say you want to be. Be realistic. Part of successful behavior change is being smart about how and when you attempt it. It’s important to know what you are ready and willing to do.
2. Are you in an environment conducive to success?
it’s important to understand that if you’re like most Americans, you live in an obesogenic environment, where the default options tend to be unhealthy, and where doing the ‘right’ thing requires that you go against the grain. To the extent possible, you want to carve out a social and physical environment that is more conducive with your health goals. Doing so is typically not easy, but it can be done to some extent.
Moreover, if you are like most people, you have spent decades ingraining an unhealthy behavior or habit; the psychological and physiological inertia to change can be VERY strong. Be aware that changing this behavior may not be easy, and there are biological reasons why it’s sometimes quite difficult.
These are not meant to be excuses. Nor are they reasons to postpone your effort. But the reality is that to initiate and stick with a healthy behavior, you’ll need to be proactive, and persistent.
3. What do you want to achieve and what might stop you?
What is the target you’re aiming at? Your chances of success go up when you follow a goal that you set for yourself and believe is of vital import. Ideally, the goal with meet the following criteria:
- Clearly defined (specific)
- Attainable (go for a single, not a home run),
- Measurable (will you be able to assess whether or not you were successful)
- Short-term (or broken down into small pieces)
You should also ask yourself why you haven’t already achieved this goal? What has been stopping you? What are your barriers? It’s likely that you’ve tried to achieve these goals in the past. It is wisdom to learn from past pitfalls and be proactive about addressing them the next time around. You may have lacked vital information, or the motivation to stick the change. You may have been missing critical social support, or simply didn’t have the necessary resources. If you can identify particular barriers that have kept you from attaining your goals in the past, and you can address at least some of them, you’ll improve your chances of success.
4. What will you do every day to meet these goals?
Once you’ve thought through some of these questions, it’s time to make a plan that will guide you from where you are to where you want to be. Your plan can be detailed or loosely structured, but it should outline what you will need to DO from day to day to progress toward your goal. Trying to lose weight? Set a target of losing, on average, ½ pound per week for the next 10 weeks. Then determine what daily nutritional and physical activity changes you will make to run the caloric deficit necessary to lose weight. More fruits and vegetables, no processed carbs, and 10k steps a day. It’s a good idea to write all this down and put in on your fridge or on your hand.
Better yet, make it the background image on your phone.
This is also a good time to share your goal and plan with someone else – whether it’s a few friends or your entire Facebook network. Just make sure it’s someone you interact with regularly, and someone who isn’t shy about asking you how its going. Accountability is crucial.
If you can find a friend to make a change with you, even better! Check in regularly, pick each other up when you fall, and give tough love when needed. Humans are social animals, and it’s rare that we do anything of consequence on our own. If you are embarrassed or intimidated to ask for help, remember there are millions of people in your shoes. You have an opportunity to inspire and impact others by reaching out.
5. How is your progress?
You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Objectively tracking daily progress toward your goal (daily steps, daily caloric intake, weekly weight, hours of sleep, etc.) adds another critical layer of accountability, motivates you to keep going, enables new insights into your health and enhances the sense of accomplishment along the way. It doesn’t have to be complicated – a lot of info can be tracked in a few seconds a day with pencil and paper. But for those of us who own neither pencil nor paper, thankfully new technologies that enable people to more objectively track their health are becoming better, cheaper and more widely available.
In fact, we are at the beginning of an explosion of new consumer health apps, devices, sensors and programs. I often find myself pointing people to one or several of these tools as a way to make their health health quest more accountable, social or just fun.
Let’s take exercise as an example — try the following tools to reach your goal:
- Carry the Fitbit accelerometer around to track your steps – simply by measuring your daily total you’ll find yourself instinctively looking for ways to push your numbers up.
- Use RunKeeper’s mobile app to track all your runs, walks and other exercise – then go to their website to chart your fitness stats right alongside your weight and sleep, then share and compare with friends.
- Link up your tracked activities to Earndit to win gift cards to a growing range of cool products – cause free stuff doesn’t hurt motivation either.
- Join the Fitocracy to ‘level up’ your fitness by competing with friends in the ultimate game for physical activity.
- Then sign-on to Gym-Pact and wager real cash to help you get your butt to the gym. Regardless of your particular goals, you’re likely to find an app, site or device to help you along the way.
Socrates asserted that humans never knowingly choose that which is bad for them, but rather suffer from ‘measurement error’, wherein they perceive definite proximate pleasures (like eating chips NOW) as being relatively larger on the horizon than nebulous distal pains (like increased risk of heart disease, 20 years down the road). I’ve outlined a few strategies that might help you re-frame these measurements and take proactive steps in the right direction. Hopefully you’ll find these approaches to be useful, either for yourself or for a friend.