How to Change a Health Habit
By Terrina Thomas, MS
The best way to reduce our healthcare costs is to keep from getting sick in the first place by taking care of our health. While most of us know what we should do to improve our health, we just don’t know how to make a long-term change.
Changing a habit – even one we really want to change – is hard. When faced with many bad habits that we know we should change, it can feel insurmountable, especially if we’ve failed at attempts in the past. So how can you eliminate a bad habit – such as smoking – or adopt a good habit – such as regular exercise?
The key is to select only one habit at a time to work on, break it into incremental goals, give yourself time to make it part of your lifestyle, and reward yourself along the way for small successes. Here are some other tips that can help:
1) Realize that you deserve to take care of yourself. It is not being selfish to take time away from your family to sign up for an exercise class, go for a walk or spend a little longer preparing a simple, but healthy meal. Women often feel guilty for taking a break from childcare or housework, especially when they also work away from the home, but without taking care of themselves, they can’t take care of their families.
2) Be specific with your goal. Don’t just make a resolution to “lose weight,” or “quit smoking,” but develop a specific plan. If you want to lose 10 pounds, for example, you might decide that you will cut out processed sugar and increase your vegetables and fruits to five servings per day. If you want to quit smoking, you could decide that you will either go “cold turkey” on a certain day or make an appointment with your physician to get a prescription that can help control cravings. Develop a plan that works for you, but make a plan.
3) Write it down to make it happen. Research has shown that making a written commitment to change and then recording the daily action produces better long-term results. Just the simple act of keeping a food journal, for example, will make you more conscious of what you eat even without counting calories.
4) Plan for the change by putting it into your schedule ahead of time. If you wait until you feel like exercising, you probably won’t do it. If you sign up for a class twice a week and put it on your calendar, you are more likely to keep the appointment with yourself.
5) Find a buddy. Creating a good habit or stopping a bad one is more successful if you have a friend or coworker that is “walking the walk” with you. Want to start walking every day at 6 a.m.? Enlist a neighbor to walk with you so that somebody is counting on you to show up. Want to lose weight? Organize a friendly contest at work. Enlist the support of your spouse and family members, too.
6) Believe in yourself – small changes add up. Some experts say it takes 21 days to make a new habit, but it really takes a lifetime! Don’t kick yourself when you mess up – just get back on course toward your goal as soon as possible. Don’t wait until the first of the week, month or year to start over. As soon as you realize you have gotten off track, get back on.
Congratulations for caring about your health and learning how to improve your life by making new habits. Realize that perfection is impossible, but small changes compounded over a lifetime can make a big difference in how you feel and can add up to big savings in the family budget.
Terrina Thomas, MS is Director of Community Health and Prevention at Optima Health, a Virginia-based health plan with more than 440,000 members, nationally-recognized for its quality, service and innovative programs.