Five Powerful Strategies for Achieving Any Health Goal
Forming a new healthy habit or behavior may seem daunting, but there are many different strategies that one can use to begin or continue a healthy behavior change. Many of them are even evidence-based as the science of behavior change continues to evolve. Today I share with you 5 powerful strategies you can use alone or in combination to support your new healthy habit. These are all strategies that I have personally used with great success.
Write it down. You’ve probably heard this advice again and again, and it may seem tedious or useless, but there is a valid neurologic reason why writing down your goals can increase your likelihood of achieving them. In our brain we have an area called the Reticular Activating System. It is located in our brainstem, and it serves a very specific function. It acts as our attention center and helps us transition between sleep and wakefulness. It also filters the constant barrage of incoming data to determine what trickles in to our conscious mind. It’s like having a program continuously running in the background to determine what is important and valid enough to bring to your attention. When you present a task to the reticular activating system, such as a goal, it will work hard to keep it in your consciousness. And because the RAS is also a primary center of motivation and evaluates your senses and emotions, the way you present your goal to the RAS is very important. It is best to present your desired habit or goal in positive, clear and present tense language. You want your RAS to focus on what you desire as if it were already happening. These are also knowns as affirmations. Instead of saying “I will not drive my car to work” you would write “I walk to work three days per week.” Write your goals and desired habits for things that you WANT, not things that you don’t want. I also believe it is very powerful to attach senses and emotions to your affirmations. For example: “I enjoy a brisk refreshing walk to work 3 days per week.” Review your affirmations at least twice per day or put them somewhere that you can see them often such as your smart phone lock screen or computer screen saver. Affirmations can be used for any goal, habit or change you want to accomplish in your life. I love them and have them posted all over my house. Take a moment now to write down an affirmation - remember to word it in the present tense and make it positive and clear. Attach emotion and sensations to it.
Visualize. Visualization, Mental Imagery or mental rehearsal, is the process of creating or recreating an experience in the mind. Visualization is used by world-class athletes, and has been demonstrated in several studies to improve performance. It is even helpful for beginners! A study of beginner golfers conducted in 2005 found that those who used mental imagery along with practice rather than just practice alone had greater improvement in their golf skills. It also works in children. A 2001 study of 8 and 10 year old soccer players found that young soccer players who used visualization along with practice had a 31% improvement in their movement skill scores over those who practiced but did not visualize. That’s quite impressive, but visualization isn't just for athletes. I have heard it said before that people are more likely to engage in behaviors that they can actually imagine themselves doing. Jessica Lange made this point exactly when she said, “It comes down to something really simple: Can I visualize myself playing those scenes? If that happens, then I know that I will probably end up doing it.” The reason that mental rehearsal works is because you are actually training your brain and your neural pathways to develop a new habit or belief about yourself, and the more realistic you make it in your imagination, the better. Engage ALL of your senses as well as your emotions. Feel, see, and taste the experience you want to have, and your brain will start to believe it is real. And it really only takes a few minutes per day. I started visualizing a few years ago. I put a reminder in the shower and spent just a couple of minutes per day visualizing what I desired in as much detail as possible, smiling the whole time. The results for me have been tremendous. Visualizing is fun and should feel like a treat. Take a moment now to visualize your success. Close your eyes and imagine yourself accomplishing your goal or see yourself actively engaging in your new healthy habit. Picture the environment that you are in and the colors and sensations around you. Imagine how you feel - whether it’s happy, proud, content, calm, or confident. And now anchor those feelings to that habit. The more you practice this, the easier it gets, and those emotions and feelings become attached to that habit or goal. What the brain believes, it can achieve.
Develop Mini-habits. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” There is so much wisdom in this popular quote. Instead of making a huge overwhelming goal and trying achieve it in a short time frame, you may have greater success by breaking it down into mini-habits. Stephen Guise wrote about this concept in his books, Mini Habits and Mini Habits for Weight Loss. Basically, mini habits are changes or habits that are so small it would be ridiculous not to do them. For example, instead of making a goal to run 5 miles or one hour per day, your new mini habit is to run at least to the end of your block or run for 1 minute. It may seem laughable, but because you set a goal or a habit that is so easy to attain, you can begin to very quickly and powerfully develop self-efficacy, or the belief that you are able to accomplish a goal. And the more self-efficacy you have, the more you really ARE able to reach your goals. Of course, it doesn't mean you ONLY have to run to the end of the block, and probably most days once you get to the end of the block, you may want to go further. However, on the days that you achieve the minimum, you still come out a winner. The mini habits work because you don't need a ton of motivation and they don't create much pain or resistance. It doesn't feel overwhelming. I’ll give you an example. One of my goals is to honor my satiety and learn to eat an appropriate amount of food for my body. I love food and I used to eat past full because it felt comforting and safe for me. Learning the skills to change my behavior in this area has been a huge challenge, and I felt a lot of resistance and fear. I finally decided to take it one tiny step at a time. My mini habit was to leave one bite behind at the end of my meal. It worked so well that I was actually able to progress from that with ease. Over time mini habits add up in a big way, and before you know it, you’ve achieved a much bigger goal. Take a moment now to think of a mini-habit that would get you started on your larger goal or behavior change. The habit should be so small that it is almost embarrassing.
Seek Pleasure. Although there are many different approaches to maintaining an exercise habit, in my opinion, the best way to ensure that you will continue a given form of exercise or physical activity is to find one that is enjoyable. In fact, research has shown that people tend to stick with habits or behaviors that are derived from intrinsicversus extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation means that it comes from within or from internal rewards. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of you such as monetary or material rewards, praise, recognition, or in the case of exercise - body size and shape. A study performed by Ryan and his colleagues in 1997 found that participants in the study were more likely to stick with their physical activity when they were motivated by enjoyment, competence and social interaction, but not when their primary motivation was fitness or appearance. However, participants had a higher likelihood of engaging in more challenging work outs when they were motivated by fitness or appearance. This is very insightful and signals a double whammy that may derail your goals. Although I don't think that it is a BAD reason to start exercising because you want to “get in shape”, it seems that it won’t be a good enough reason for most people to keep them lacing up their sneakers week after week. In addition, if you are motivated solely by physical appearance, you may start with workouts that are grueling and painful which decreases your likelihood of continuing that routine. My advice is to try different forms of exercise and stick with the one that you enjoy the most either because it feels good, you get social gratification from it, or you enjoy the rewards of improving your skills in it. And remember that the benefits of exercise are far greater than just your appearance, your weight, or your body fat percentage. Regular physical activity decreases your risk of chronic disease, strengthens your bones and muscles, and it brings joy into your life. In my opinion, the mental health benefits are the greatest reward. A study in 1999 found that after a 16 week trial, exercise was just as good at relieving depression as Zoloft. Furthermore, of the group who exercised, those who continued to exercise were less likely to have a relapse. My plea to you is, don't use exercise as a punishment for your body, but treat pleasurable movement as a reward and a gift, and I guarantee you will be more likely to stick with it.
Follow Your Intuition. Only you know what is best for your body. There are many books and guides and gurus out there, but they do not live inside your body or walk in your shoes. With some experimentation and trial and error, you can find out what is best for you. However, you have to learn to trust yourself. Listening to your intuition is a skill that can be developed with practice. Some methods that may improve your intuition include mindfulness, meditation, journaling, and connecting with nature. I have strengthened my own intuition through a daily meditation practice, and it has benefitted me in many ways. We can all learn from others, but you are the only expert on your own body and life, so relax, take a deep breath, and look within.
I hope that these 5 strategies are helpful and inspiring to you. A final thought that I want to leave with you is to consider letting go of perfectionism and the all-or-nothing approach to health and wellness. Although at first glance it may seem like rigidly high expectations may help motivate us to achieve our goals, it can actually sabotage our growth. Voltaire said, “Perfect is the enemy of good”, something I remind myself of often. Change is not linear; there will be bumps in the road. Strive for progress not perfection, and take it one step at a time. I know you WILL achieve your goals. So do your best, have fun, and go out and live your healthy, joyful life!
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