Samantha Cassetty for NBC News Online shares tips for getting your health back on track by cultivating healthy habits and changing unhealthy habits. Learn how to improve your willpower, meditate your weight away, and set better goals.
How to Reverse Course and Change Unhealthy Habits for Good
Slip up on our your diet and skip the gym today? These expert strategies will get you back on track.
The new year offers a fresh start to improve your health and wellness, and without a doubt, most resolutions focus on these aspects of our lives. Yet, a commonly cited stat suggests that the vast majority of people — over 90 percent— don’t feel like they successfully achieve their resolutions. Stack the odds in your favor this year with these tips from leading wellness experts around the globe.
EXERCISE YOUR WILLPOWER
If you think about willpower like a muscle, you’ll realize it needs to be conditioned. Jen Johnson, a mindfulness teacher, personal coach and counselor specializing in health and wellness recommends learning and practicing strategies for improving willpower. “These include practicing meditation, reducing stress, exercising, getting adequate sleep and relaxing,” she says.
Many of the experts I turned to recommend the simple act of breathing as a way to stay focused on your goals. Johnson says a mindfulness practice helps build awareness, reduce stress and develop focus. This practice works, she says, because “people who are stressed or distracted are more likely to give into temptations and allow their impulses to direct their choices.”
If you’re a meditation skeptic, start with just a few minutes a day. “It’s a great way to bring some clarity and perspective to your day to keep you on track with your goals,” says Tiffany Cruikshank, L.A.c., MAOM, RYT, a yoga, meditation and wellness expert and founder of Yoga Medicine. “I recommend doing this first thing when you get out of bed to prepare for your day. It doesn’t need to be anything fancier than just finding a comfortable seat, closing your eyes and noticing your breath. When your mind wanders off, simply bring it back to your breath. Each time you bring yourself back to your breath it’s like doing a bicep curl for your mind,” she explains.
IMAGINE WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE
Nutritionist Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, author of Slim Down Now, suggests visualizing your goals. “I visualize myself experiencing the benefits tied to the behavior change or goal I’m working on. When I can envision my future self, it helps me to know that the benefits I’ll be gaining are worth the effort,” says Sass.
Cruikshank is also a fan of this technique — especially as a way to start your day. After finding a comfortable seat and taking a moment to notice your breath, she suggests vividly visualizing your goal. “Picture what it looks and feels like to have attained that goal. Picture yourself going through a typical day once you have attained your goal and make it as vivid as possible. Take a couple minutes to really let it sink in, then take a deep breath and a moment to feel content just as you are before you go off to your day.” The reason this is so effective, she explains, “is because when we approach our goals from a place of inadequacy, it’s much harder to maintain them long term.”
Though visualization is a technique that can be used for everyone, James P. Owen, author of Just Move!: A New Approach to Fitness after 50, has specific tips for older adults. “How older people think about themselves and their demographic peers is a huge impediment to fitness. Banish thoughts of yourself as old, slow and weak, and resist any comparisons to your younger self. In their place, picture the stronger, more youthful version of yourself that you’re on your way to becoming.”
BE YOUR OWN BEST FRIEND
What I’ve found from working with people over many years is that you’re likely your worst critic. You know that inner voice in your head? The one that that makes you feel ashamed when you’ve slipped up — whether because you skipped spin class all week or said yes to a few cookies during an afternoon slump. It’s time to quiet that voice.
“Perfection doesn’t exist so let go of that notion and instead, set positive intentions that are rooted in self-love and self-respect,” suggests Katie Cavuto MS, RD of Nourish.Breathe.Thrive blog. “Enter into your intentions with compassion and understanding that you are aiming to do your best, but realistically you expect that you may stray from your path. If and when you do, gently remind yourself of your intention and continue to move forward. Gradually, you will find that you stay centered more than not,” promises Cavuto. She also recommends some broad goals for eating better this year, such as ‘I eat to nourish my body’, ‘I am doing my best to eat more whole foods’ and ‘My intention is to eat more vegetables everyday.’ “These intentions focus on adding things to your plate versus taking things away,” she notes.
Owen is another expert who agrees with this approach. “Rather than scolding yourself or dwelling on ‘shoulds’ when your motivation flags, remind yourself of the kind of person you are and aspire to be — someone of action, strength and resolve. Think back to times when you’ve persevered toward a long-term goal, and to the promises you’ve kept to others. Now you’re going to keep your promise to yourself, because that’s who you are!”
SET YOUR SIGHTS RIGHT
If you’ve never run a mile, setting the intention to run a marathon might not be the right place to start. The same goes for weight loss. If you want to drop 40 pounds but haven’t been at that goal weight in decades, you may need to adjust your thinking. I often remind clients that these lofty goals are like the North Star — a good directional guide, but not necessarily the landing spot.
“You have to decide what’s realistic for you and your lifestyle,” says Vancouver and Bali-based lifestyle mentor Dai Manuel. “If you are someone who does no physical activity, adding in 15 minutes a day of movement with purpose is a great way to leverage one percent of your 24-hour day,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the time that matters as much as what you do with the time,” he adds.
Both Manuel and Johnson suggest making your goals more challenging as you meet each one. “The most important thing to note is that you are gradually increasing your limits based on how your body is responding, adapting, and ultimately, evolving,” advises Manuel.
FIND YOUR WHY
The pros agreed that beyond looking better, you need to dig deeper to connect with your reasons for seeking change. Ask yourself, “What do you want to be able to do, or how do you want to feel by achieving your intentions?” suggests Johnson.
Cruikshank offers other questions to consider. “Will you interact with people differently, will you care for your family differently, will your happiness at the end of the day be different?” she asks. Once you discover your own why, “tune into the most meaningful elements that you find and keep them in the forefront of your attention when you find your motivation waning,” she recommends.
Teaming up with a partner means you’ll have someone by your side to keep you motivated and weather the inevitable setbacks. “Surround yourself with a support system of people who inspire and help hold you accountable to stick to your goals. It can be family, friends, co-workers or a fitness community,” says celebrity trainer, wellness and lifestyle coach Rosalia Chann. She recommends finding someone with similar goals, or even introducing yourself to someone in your fitness class.
Certainly, you’re not restricted to just one teammate. Make getting fit a family affair, suggests Manuel. “Not only will you make fitness gains, you can also enjoy more time interacting together and building stronger relationships,” he says.
HAVE FUN AND STAY POSITIVE
How can you expect to stick with a resolution if it feels like an added chore? PilatesonFifthOnline.com founders Katherine and Kimberly Corpse suggest that “resolutions should be empowering, not punitive. If the plan you have created looks more punitive (even on paper) than it does inspiring, it’s probably not going to work.”
Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, and author of The Superfood Swap, gamifies her goals. “To stick to my resolutions, I practice seven-day challenges. For one week, I assign myself just one behavior I really want to change and make a record at the end of each day whether I kept on track. Keeping focused on just one behavior feels less overwhelming and recording the results keeps me motivated.”
If you want to eat better, find new recipes to try. If getting fit is your goal, seek activities — whether biking, hiking, skiing or yoga — that excite you. For those who want to meditate more, try an app that inspires you. It’s much easier to stay motivated when you frame things as fun.
DON’T TAKE AN ALL OR NOTHING APPROACH
It’s worth repeating that setbacks are part of the process. “We all have days when we feel low on energy and drive, so don’t get caught in the trap of ‘all or nothing’ thinking,” advises Owen. If you’re tempted to skip your workout, he suggests giving yourself permission to scale back instead. “For example, you could go to the gym and just do stretches and one or two exercises. Once you get moving, the chances are you’ll feel ready to do more.”
At the very least, gently remind yourself of your intentions and your motivations behind them. If you’ve gotten off track, simply take the next opportunity to steer yourself in the right direction. As I often say, if you’ve made a wrong turn while driving, you wouldn’t continue to head in the wrong direction. Take this approach to your wellness goals and you’ll be able to handle any detours.