Jeffrey Laman, MD
New year, same resolutions: Lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking. If you vow to make changes every year but never succeed, you need to have a better plan.
Setting goals is a great first step, but to transform those goals into permanent lifestyle changes, you need a plan of action. This plan sets realistic expectations and provides the support you’ll need to reach them.
Reframe Your Goal
How you define your goal is important. Nobody “gives up” something they’re attached to, whether you’re ditching cigarettes or daily dessert. And while resolutions such as “start exercising” may sound positive, they lack specifics and a greater motivation. To get the best head start, reframe your goal so that it positively identifies not only what you are seeking to achieve, but how and why.
“Stop smoking” becomes “replace smoking with healthy actions that ensure I’ll be a fun grandparent.”
“Lose weight” becomes “improve my BMI by eating vegetables at every meal and moving my body for 30 minutes every day.”
“Start exercising” becomes “exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week to lower my risk of heart disease and set a good example for my kids.”
Realistic Expectations and Attainable Goals
It’s important to set end-goal resolutions but to avoid getting discouraged, you should set smaller, attainable mini-goals along the way. Understanding the “why” behind the changes you want to make can reinforce your decision, especially if you become frustrated.
Using the most common resolution — to lose weight — as an example: Rather than focusing on the end-goal of “lose 50 pounds,” create several smaller goals that are easier to achieve but still lead you in that direction, including:
- Change your afternoon snack from potato chips to fresh vegetables.
- Use a salad-sized plate for dinner to limit portion size.
- Shop from your grocery store’s peripheral shelves and don’t buy prepackaged or frozen meals.
- Change your weekend grill night from burgers to chicken or fish.
Turn Bad Habits into Good Routines
Life is busy, and it’s normal to slip into mindless habits. Turning a bad habit into a better one is challenging because you not only have to change your mindset but the automatic behaviors that are attached to it.
- If you are accustomed to having a cigarette with your morning coffee, change where you drink your coffee to a nonsmoking cafe.
- If you usually go out for drinks with coworkers at the end of a shift, sign up for an exercise class during that same time window.
- If you keep a soda within reach at your desk, replace it with a healthy flavored-water alternative. Better still, keep that water in the office refrigerator so that you must walk to get it.
- Even this small break in a bad habit can be a reminder to stay focused on your bigger goal.
Set Up a Support System
Change is hard, but it can be easier with help from trusted family and friends. Once identifying your goals, seek external sources or steps that can help you reach them.
Find a workout buddy who will hold you to your schedule. It’s harder to rationalize skipping that morning walk if you know your friend is waiting for you at the corner.
Explain to family why you want to lose weight and ask them to help keep you on track.
Tap into outside support groups such as Overeaters Anonymous or Quitline and take advantage of countless free smartphone apps that provide everything from daily reminders to health tracking.
Talk to your doctor and create a personalized plan to reach your goals. Whether that means working with a dietitian to figure out a nutrition plan that fits your health needs or medication to offset a nicotine addiction, your healthcare team can help you safely keep those resolutions.
Finally, remember, setbacks and stumbling blocks are normal, so don’t give up. Regroup, forge a new path and start again. Big healthy lifestyle changes are not quick or easy, but they are always worth the effort.