Few of us can claim we don't know how to improve our mental and physical health. We are literally inundated with information. The nightly news seems to run a story most weeks about new research showing how important regular exercise is. Doctors commonly tell their patients they need to lose weight and quit smoking or they can develop serious medical problems. Magazine covers highlight energetic and smiling people with captions about the importance of good sleep. Therapists advise people they need to cut down on stress and improve their relationships so they will feel less depressed and anxious. Ministers and priests teach their parishioners about the benefits of spirituality and generosity toward others.
Why, then, don't we do it?
A 2010 research study conducted by Harris Interactive found that fewer than one in five adults, who tried to make lifestyle changes, was successful in eating healthier, losing weight, starting a regular exercise pattern, or reducing stress. When asked what got in the way of making desired changes, most people believed their progress was blocked by feeling too stressed to focus on making changes, feeling "alone" in making the changes, or lacking willpower.
With New Year's Eve, and the inevitable resolutions, coming, I decided to research what makes people follow through on these types of goals. The American Psychological Association recommends five ways of increasing the likelihood of sticking with positive, lasting behavior and lifestyle changes.
First, make a realistic plan, write it down, and post it so that you'll see it. For example, if you want to start exercising, decide what time of day you could realistically walk and how long you could spare. Put it on your calendar, post your calendar in your kitchen.
Second, start with a small goal. Break it down into small, manageable tasks that can be measured. For instance, if you want to lose 20 pounds in the next five months, set a small goal of losing one pound per week. Or, set the goal to simply cut out all dessert and replace dessert with yogurt and fruit. At the end of each week, you will feel more motivated when you see you reached your goal.
Third, focus on changing one behavior at a time. Unhealthy behaviors have often been part of our life for a long time so developing healthier habits will take awhile. Many people who try to change too many of their old unhealthy habits at once, feel overwhelmed and give up. You are more likely to stick with the goal if you can focus on one thing and see the success from it. After your new healthy behavior becomes a habit, chose another goal to focus on.
Fourth, find someone who will do it with you. This could be a friend, sister, or co-worker. Find someone who will be encouraging and who will hold you accountable. If you know your co-worker is waiting to go to a Weight Watchers meeting with you at lunch, you are more likely to do it. People find the task less intimidating if they have someone to share the struggles and successes with.
Fifth, ask for, and accept help from, family, friends and co-workers. Create a small community around you who will support and strengthen your commitment and resilience. Consider joining a support group or seeking therapy for added support.
Be kind to yourself along the way. You will eat a piece of pie, skip the gym, or sneak a cigarette sometimes. Minor slips like this are normal. Resolve to get back on track. Your commitment to your New Year's resolution awaits!
• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.