Tips to Sticking with Lifestyle Changes

Updated:Jun 1,2012

Middle-Aged Couple Riding BikesYour cholesterol — one of the major controllable risk factors for heart disease and stroke — has been creeping up on you for years.  Maybe your doctor has told you about the lifestyle changes you need to make, like eating a heart-healthy diet, getting regular physical activity and avoiding tobacco smoke, to get it under control.

So why aren’t you exercising? And why are you smoking? After all, you know what you need to do.

“Denial is a very common reason,” said Mary E. Mancini, R.N., Ph.D., associate dean and chair of undergraduate nursing programs and Baylor professor for healthcare research at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing.

“You may say, ‘I know others who weigh more than me, smoke more than me and eat more cheeseburgers than me.’ Even those with a strong family history of heart disease may think, it’s not going to be me,” said Mancini, an American Heart Association volunteer.

And passing on the chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes with gravy isn’t always as simple as saying “no thanks.” 

“For many, it’s comfort food,” Mancini said. “There can be a tight connection between feelings and behavior and the food we eat.”

Start Strong (Hint: tell a friend!)
You may swear that your next cheeseburger will be your last or that you’ll start being more physically active after the holidays. How do you break the procrastination cycle? Think about today — just today. Focus on one thing, like not smoking, or including small ways to be active like taking the stairs or cooking your favorite dish at home and making substitutions like using healthy oils instead of butter. 

There’s no magic formula for succeeding. “Think about when you’ve learned something in school or picked up a new hobby,” Mancini suggested. “How have you been successful in the past?”

Set an achievable target. Don’t say I need to lose 150 pounds. Talk about the first five. And have a back-up plan when you slip, because no one’s perfect. “If I’ve already thought about it, the consequences are less devastating,” Mancini said.

Don’t underestimate the power of a strong support system. A “way to go!” from a friend, family member or co-worker can give you the boost you need to keep going.

“Talk to your family and friends, and make a deal,” Mancini said. “Agree that ‘I’ll walk in the morning if you do.’ Park in the farthest end of the parking lot. When I want to go to the closest one, you say ‘no.’”

If your support system isn’t the best, or if you’d like more reinforcements, technology can be a great tool. Phone apps can you help you find a walking path and track your steps.  You can also create a grocery list online to help you find heart-healthy foods.

Staying On the Right Track
So you started walking, and your favorite dish was packing less saturated fat … and you kept that up for less than a week. Why’d you stop?

“For some, it’s a change of heart,” Mancini said. “They do it for a couple of days, and then life gets in the way.”

But if you can create a healthy habit  without taking a break, the more likely you are to continue. “When you first start making healthy food choices, it may be really hard,” Mancini said. “But by the fifth or sixth time, you may be feeling better, find it’s easier and like the results.”

Sometimes you’ll find yourself on a path to a healthier lifestyle — with unwelcome detours from loved ones. When Mom’s cheesy enchiladas keep turning up, plan ahead and think about the healthy green side salad you can make.

Another scenario: Your best friend loves you like a brother, but smoking has been a major bond.  “You could meet up to play basketball instead of going to a bar,” Mancini said. “Choose situations where you have less exposure to smoke.” 

You could also encourage your friends not to smoke. Think of a payoff. For example, take the money you would’ve spent on smoking in six months, and take a trip together instead.

“Change is difficult,” Mancini said. “It’s hard work but it’s important work. Ultimately we’re talking about our health and welfare. If we don’t value it for ourselves, then perhaps we value it for our friends and family.”

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