How to Change Bad Habits and Live a Heart Healthy Lifestyle

Updated:Jan 9,2014

Making Heart Health a HabitLearn to form healthy habits by replacing the bad ones. Substituting healthy habits for unhealthy ones rewards you with more stamina, better quality of life – and a healthier you.

That is easier said than done, of course, but some simple tips can help you tackle even the most indulgent and hardest-to-kick habits. Rani Whitfield, M.D., a Baton Rouge, La., family practitioner and American Heart Association volunteer, is on a mission to help people change their unhealthy habits.

An unhealthy habit is easy to develop and hard to live with; a healthy habit is harder to develop but easier to live with,” said Whitfield, who has earned the nickname “The Hip Hop Doc” through his work getting young people to make healthier choices.

Regardless of your age, you can benefit from Whitfield’s simple habit-changing tips.

First, he says, know that it takes 60 to 90 days to create a new habit. You have to keep after it. If you forget sometimes, or if at first you don’t figure how to make it work with your schedule, keep after it.
It helps to remember that an unhealthy habit is attractive because it gives instant gratification—that immediate “feel good.” But you pay later. On the other hand, a healthy habit means you put off gratification but get a much bigger payoff down the road.

Think of your task as replacement rather than deprivation. Says Whitfield, “Kojak sucked on lollipops because he was stopping smoking,” said of the famous 1970s TV detective. Of course, too much candy is bad for you, too – but a few lollipops is much better than smoking when it comes to your heart health. Whitfield says it’s important to “find your real motivation.” It’s OK and in fact helpful to use another motivation in addition to getting healthier. “A lot of people will do it for their children,” he says. They want to set a good example, or they simply want to live to see their kids graduate. And then there’s good old vanity. “If you want six-pack abs, maybe your motivation is to ask out a certain lady,” says Whitfield. 

Here are his top tips:

  1. Break a big goal into smaller short-term goals. “Don’t go cold turkey,” he says. “Suppose you’re drinking five beers a day, and you want to get down to six a month. Reduce to three a day. You’ll see the benefits and feel more motivated to move toward your longer-term goal.”
  2. Tell someone you trust – not someone who will sabotage you. Be accountable to someone all the time.
    It’s toughest forming a healthy habit if you don’t have support. For example, one spouse might be trying to stop smoking while the other one isn’t. “You have to find some inner strength, some self-motivation and push through it. Or get couples counseling, a safe setting where you can ask your spouse: ‘Can you be supportive and go outside to smoke?’ ”
  3. Allow a “cheat” once in a while. “If you’ve avoided sweets all week and you’ve been exercising, and you go to Grandma’s, you can afford that ONE small piece of apple pie. Or let yourself have one ‘crazy meal’ a week.”
  4. Break the TV habit in favor of exercise. “Tell yourself, ‘If I just have to watch Martin Lawrence, I’ll Tivo it and watch on the weekend, or do my exercise and then have the show as my reward to myself.’
    “Or, if you have room, you can exercise in front of the TV,” he said. For some, TV seems to be their only friend. “If it’s all about escapism, the underlying anxiety or depression needs to be treated, or if you can’t finish tasks, do your work or the housework,” He says.
He knows it’s tough out there.
“More people are drinking or using marijuana more often to deal with anxiety and depression over family problems or lack of a job, and maybe the inability to relax or to sleep,” Whitfield says. ”They are not understanding that they are making their own problems worse. Alcohol is a depressant; illegal drugs will land you in jail.”

The Hip-Hop Doc’s best habits for heart health:
  1. Consistent exercise, 30 minutes a day, seven days a week. Read the AHA's recommendations for adults.
  2. Quitting Smoking.
  3. If you currently need medication for a cardiovascular condition, take meds faithfully.  “If you forget, put them with your toothbrush.” 
Keep at it. Your greatest wealth is your health.

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