by Jenn Krebs, N.D.
This is a good time of year to talk about motivation. Many of us use the new year and/or the month of January as motivation to start living healthier lives and making healthier choices. In my experience, both personally and clinically, come February the motivation tends to begin fading away. Of course there are always people who manage to maintain motivation, commitment and focus and realize their health goals, but for many us committing to a health regimen long term can be a challenge. When we hit plateaus in weight loss, feel limited or financially strained by eating healthier foods, experience a disruption in our exercise routine, or confront the temptation of “forbidden” foods, it is so hard to stay on track with our goals.
While we can often times find the motivation and commitment to INITIATE healthier behaviors, the real challenge is to MAINTAIN the new behaviors long term. Whether the goal is losing weight, establishing healthier behaviors, enhancing one’s vitality or all of the above, the challenges and obstacles seem to be the same. Here is a list I compiled of five ways to support and enhance a person’s chances of SUCCESSFULLY MAINTAINING a new health regimen.
1. Make Your Goals Attainable; Set Yourself up for Success When I meet with a patient who is wanting to make an enormous leap, let’s say from extremely poor eating habits to a whole foods diet, I am cautiously optimistic. While I want nothing more than to encourage and nurture one’s desire to change and be healthier, I encourage patients to create both short term and long term goals. The shorter term goals always have the long term goals in their site, but the short term goals allow for a more realistic protocol to be created. Even if you’re not making a huge leap but rather you are making small adjustments to an already healthy lifestyle, I recommend setting goals that are realistic.
For example, if one’s long term goal is to lose 50 lbs., run a half marathon and lower his/her cholesterol and blood sugar levels, I would recommend an initial protocol starting with eliminating certain foods, identifying new eating behaviors, emphasizing eating and preparing new kinds of food, and beginning a ritual of “moving” one’s body every day.
2. Replace Old Behaviors with New Behaviors When working on a treatment protocol with a patient, I try to emphasize the concept of establishing healthy behaviors not just eliminating unhealthy ones. Creating new behavior is not just making the decision to do something differently, it is making the commitment to finding realistic and tangible ways of living that new behavior.
For example, if we are going to eliminate certain foods that have been prominent in our diet, it is so important that we pay equal attention to what foods we can eat and create detailed sample meal plans. If we want to eat healthier and maintain that behavior long term, we must learn what new foods to eat as well as find recipes and meals that contain these foods. Finding foods that we enjoy eating and enjoy preparing are so important to our long term success. Another example of this concept is if we are wanting to bring exercise and movement into our lives and are struggling to find the time, we could replace socializing by meeting friends out for lunch or dinner, with meeting friends for a hike, a bike ride or going to the gym.
3. Use How You Feel to Gauge Your Success, Not How You Look or What You Weigh This concept requires a very different approach to how we measure our success. I always ask my patients to list their health goals before our first meeting. While I do work with people whose main goal is to lose weight, I can’t tell you how many people write down, “I want to feel better, healthier, stronger and/or more vital.” If we could realize that how we feel in our bodies, how much energy we have, how much vitality we feel, and how much wellness and happiness we experience in our lives are the factors by which we measure our health, we would be more easily motivated and more committed to maintain healthy behaviors. In my experience, the scale and the mirror are more often than not mechanisms of disappointment, frustration, criticism and judgment. If we learn how to measure our health by how we feel, we have more tangible, more realistic and more dependable feedback on how we are doing.
A patient once told me that she felt like a slave to her scale. Even when she lost weight and expected to be happy, she was only terrified that she would gain the weight back. There was no joy in how she “measured” herself, just shame, dread and unhappiness. I am not going to say that her journey to becoming more confident and less judgmental of herself happened over night, not by a longshot. However, I can say that opening a dialogue with her body (this body that she dismissed and despised) allowed for a more mindful relationship to how she “measured” and “viewed” herself and in doing so she was able to let go of much of the judgment, criticism and loathing.
4. Revisit Times in Your Life when You Felt Healthy and Vital This practice is a wonderful way of gaining information about yourself as well as connecting to your “healthier self.” Many of us have times in our lives that we look back upon as being times when we thrived personally – when we felt our very best, when we were eating well and mindfully, and when we were feeling physically and emotionally strong and vital. I find that when we connect to this time either through therapy, bodywork, visualization, imagery, and/or journaling, we gather invaluable information about ourselves and experience feelings of empowerment that can be harnessed as motivation in our journey toward greater health in the present.
An example is a woman I worked with who was able to identify clearly a time in her life when she felt great in her body, was making smart and healthy choices in her diet, and was feeling extremely confident and centered. She narrowed down some key aspects of her life at that time that undoubtly contributed to her vitality. Through that visualization she was able to identify that she needed to work on her support system (connecting more to friends and family), her safety net (organizing herself financially to feel more independent), and her time management at work (allowing her to leave work on time to get to the gym in time for exercise classes, which she felt motivated and inspired her much more than working out on her own). Identifying these factors as significant to her past success allowed her to feel focused and committed to making certain life changes in the present.
5. Be Aware of Your Response to Stress We can all benefit from looking at life from a different perspective. We can define our lives by what happens to us or we can define ourselves by how we respond to what happens in our life. By realizing that we have a choice in how we react to the stresses and situations that come our way, we give ourselves the power to change. We can’t control what other people do or say, but we can choose how we respond. All too often, I see how a stressful situation or an unexpected life event derails someone’s good intention to live a healthier life. While it is certainly not easy and takes awareness, mindfulness and determination, we can begin to react differently to stress. The first step is awareness – being aware that we are responding to stress by engaging in an unhealthy behavior. From there we can make new and better choices.
Some people react to stress by binging or mindlessly eating foods that they know are not good for them. Admittedly this is a complex behavior that has many facets. But one way to begin looking at and changing this behavior is to become aware that it is a choice we are making when we reach for ice cream, chocolate and chips; no doubt we are reaching for something to make us feel temporarily better or rather to numb the difficult and challenging feelings. Consciously working to find new and healthier ways to soothe and comfort ourselves is important: exercise or movement can elevate the mood; meditation, breathing exercises, or taking a warm bath can enhance relaxation; journaling helps to process feelings and thoughts; and reading, listening to music, or doing word puzzles/games can prevent or divert obsessive or negative thinking.
The above five suggestions are all connected to one another and have a common thread. We start with a desire to change, to be healthier. We have motivation and focus in initiating our plan. Our success comes down to the journey – the day-to-day and minute-to-minute choices we make for ourselves. Our ability to make a healthy choice in a stressful or emotional moment is often what our success depends on. The more prepared we are by having real, tangible and mindful behaviors and practices in place, the more likely we are to reach our goals.