Updated: Jul 7, 2022
This is a guest post submitted by a friend and colleague Dr. Julissa Artiles. We share many of the same ideas about the benefits of positive change. I am glad to have had access to her opinions, conversation and insight and requested that she share some of her thoughts for your reading pleasure. If you want to find out more about her feel free to visit her website at https://www.drjartiles.com/
There’s something about the approach of a new year that makes some of us reflect on why we should make health-related behavior changes and how we should go about it. Although our December attitude may be full of enthusiasm and initiative, our eagerness to lose the weight, quit smoking, or start an exercise routine starts to dwindle come January.
Making lifestyle changes requires changing old patterns of behavior (which are most likely comfortable and routine) and replacing them with newer, healthier ways of living (stepping out of your comfort zone and creating new routines). While this process can be challenging, it is not impossible (although sometimes it might feel like it is!).
Your next-door neighbor may have lost 10 lbs in the last three weeks, while you are still struggling with consistent healthy eating. Comparing yourself to others while making changes is not a good method for measuring progress. In fact, comparison may lead to decreased motivation, feeling defeated and/or hopeless (quite the opposite of what is needed for lasting behavior change).
The fact that your next-door neighbor lost 10 lbs. while you’re still struggling to increase your vegetable intake is more likely due to multiple factors, including the presence of psychological symptoms (e.g, stress, depression, anxiety) and level of motivation and readiness to change.
After multiple psychological studies that examined experiences with making lifestyle changes, it was determined that people move through five stages of change:
pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.
So while your next-door neighbor appeared to have been in the “Action” Stage (actively making health-related behavior change to reach a goal), you may have been in the “Contemplation” stage (understanding the importance of making lifestyle changes but feeling ambivalent towards changing the behavior).
So, how can you get yourself moving through the stages of change to find yourself going for a run alongside your neighbor?
First things first, we all know that stress can play a role in the use of negative
coping strategies (increased sugar and carbohydrate intake a.k.a. “comfort food”, and prolonged sedentary activities a.k.a. “Netflix binge-watching”).
Self-assessment is critical (I like to call this a “Mental health Check-in”). It is important that you become connected with how you are feeling. A mental health check-in will not take a whole lot of your time, and there are many ways you can do it.
Here are a few simple questions to ask yourself:
“How am I feeling at this moment?”
“How does my body feel?”
“Have I been sleeping and eating well?”
“Do I have more worries or anxiety than usual?”
“Do I feel that I have a good work-life balance?”
If there is a presence of psychological symptoms (i.e., feeling down, loss of interest, more tired than usual), your level of motivation may be negatively impacted. When you have identified the presence (or absence) of stress or other psychological symptoms, it’s important that these symptoms are addressed (which could mean seeking professional
Addressing the stressors in your life and having the resources to manage them, will surely
improve your level of motivation and confidence in your ability to make health-related changes. Once you’ve added some healthy coping skills to your toolbox, assessing your level of motivation and readiness for change is next.
Using a 0-10 scale, ask yourself how much do you want to make this change right now?
What led you to choose that specific number?
What would it take for you to move to a higher number?
These questions may sound simplistic, but your answers will give you useful information
on what it would take to increase your motivation.
Another way of increasing level of motivation to make lifestyle changes is to explore your personal values and hopes for the future. You may want to ask yourself the following questions:
What is the most important thing in your life right now?
What are the things that you value and in what way are you living out those values?
Remember those stages of change mentioned earlier? Once your level of motivation has increased and you are prepared to take action, you have successfully moved along the stages of change from contemplation to preparation! Now is the time to develop goals that are realistic and reachable. Goals that are selected by you with an effective and realistic plan on how to reach them, will increase the chance of achieving that goal.
So first, let’s talk about realistic and reachable goals. For someone who has not exercised in months (or years!), setting up a goal for engaging in physical activity 7 days per week for one hour is unrealistic and more than likely unobtainable.
Please, do not set yourself up for failure.
Start off with goals that will set you up for success! For example, for a person who has lived a mostly sedentary life for several months, going for a brisk walk, three times per week, for 20-30 minutes, for the next four weeks, may be more achievable. For successful goal-achievement, goals should be specific (day, time, frequency, duration), measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
The idea is that the more well-defined the goal and plan of action, the easier it will be to follow and the more likely you will stay committed! You don’t have to wait until New Year’s Eve to start working on your health-goals. Today is a good day to start!
Julissa Artiles, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist