This post was written by Drew Hosier, DO, PPG – Family Medicine & Internal Medicine.
Creating healthy habits can be a bit daunting, but also very exciting. The most common New Year’s resolutions often involve changes for a healthier you. Motivation typically peaks around the beginning of January, so let’s use this time to prioritize the changes that can have the biggest impact on your well-being.
Purpose is powerful
For me, step zero, before you take any steps, is to think about your ‘why.’ What is driving you to make these changes? This will be what will keep you going on your least motivated days. That could be getting active enough to play with grandkids or to be able to take a hike on a vacation you’ve always dreamed of, or maybe it’s to cure or manage a chronic disease or to get around the grocery without as much difficulty. Hold onto that intention – write it down in a journal or somewhere you’ll see it often – and let it carry you toward success.
The next step to creating new, healthier habits and a healthier lifestyle is to know where you are starting, including what habits you have that are good and what habits you have that need to be broken or improved. One of the most common challenges is not having a good baseline to measure progress. So, evaluate your current activity level, whether that be formal or informal exercise. Think about your diet – how often are you dining out, overeating, taking in sugary drinks or mindlessly snacking when you are not hungry? Do you spend hours on your phone instead of getting a good night's rest?
Step, don’t leap
Once you know where you are starting, you can pick a few (typically two or three) habits to focus on at a time. Do not try to change your whole lifestyle at once!
I typically advocate for choosing one action item from each of these three categories:
- What goes in (eating, drinking, smoking)
- What goes out (activity, exercise)
- General well-being (sleep, stress reduction, social time, family time, self-development, education)
The action items should be very simple things to start with, and be clear, actionable and achievable goals. Avoid goals that you feel are depriving you of something you enjoy. For example, don’t set a goal of no sweets or treats at all. Rather, think about how to make a meaningful decrease.
I recommend using the SMART technique for goal setting.
S = specific
M = measurable
A = achievable
R = relatable
T = there is a time factor for reevaluation
Someone looking to increase their activity that is sedentary at baseline might feel compelled to join a gym and start working out every day. While this would be a great thing, it typically is not sustainable to go from 0 to 100. Instead, we would use SMART goal setting to start an activity program. That could mean committing to walking for a certain amount of time or distance a predetermined number of times per week (specific and measurable). Schedule the days and times with yourself as you would a doctor’s appointment or work meeting.
Prepare to be successful by having the right gear ready and a contingency plan for bad weather (think mall walking or laps around the grocery store, if necessary, in inclement conditions) to make it achievable. Make sure the program is related to your goal of getting healthier and then have a timeline for reevaluation. I like using a week at a time to consider upping the intensity or to adjust the plan to work around the obstacles you faced during the prior week. You can use this same strategy for habits like decreasing dining out, decreasing portion sizes, imparting good sleep habits or stress reduction.
Moving the needle
As a primary care physician (PCP), I believe there are a couple places people undervalue in their journey to better health that could benefit them in their progress. One is being compassionate toward yourself and giving yourself grace. Don’t dwell on previous habits or decisions; focus on the next one as it is the only one you can affect.
Second, accountability is a big factor for sustaining meaningful lifestyle changes. Having an accountability partner, whether a friend, coworker, spouse, etc., can keep you moving on days of waning motivation. As PCPs, we are always happy to aid our patients in achieving positive change, whether it’s with regular goal review, monitoring progress or sharing our expertise in health and behavioral change. I regularly use MyChart to assist my patients in troubleshooting their challenges or providing a regular check in.
Finally, don’t undervalue the impact of stress reduction and mental health on getting healthier overall! These have profound effects on your day-to-day physical and emotional energy, your overall happiness, as well as physical health measures like blood pressure, weight and blood sugar.
The trick is to start small, build a foundation and keep developing your habits to fit your needs and your lifestyle. No change is too small of a place to start. Make a plan, write it down and be willing to evolve. Keep goals to daily actionable items rather than a goal weight number or lab test result. Allow your small habit changes to snowball into long-term progress for your health, happiness and well-being.
Cheers to the next steps in your health journey!