How to Make Lifestyle Changes Stick
I want to eat better and exercise regularly, but it's so hard to make these lifestyle changes stick. I do it for a few days or weeks but then go back to my usual routine. I've repeated this cycle countless times!
Making lifestyle changes, and maintaining those changes can be one of the most difficult things for humans to do. But it doesn't have to be. Have you ever tried to change a habit or lifestyle? Perhaps you went on a diet to lose weight only to regain the lost weight after a few weeks or months. Maybe you decided you were going to go to the gym and you went, but a few weeks later you had returned to the couch. What happened? Why can making lifestyle changes be so difficult despite the best of intentions?
Most people make two basic mistakes when attempting to make lifestyle changes.
(1) They know they should eat healthier or exercise more, but they haven't internalized the desire to do so. Without truly understanding why you want to do something; why you need to do it; why you are determined to do it, you are really not committed to the task.
(2) They try to change too much too quickly. Lasting changes generally need to be made slowly, one at a time.
Let's deal with the first one as it relates to osteoarthritis. If you have osteoarthritis and you've been reading about it, then you know you should be doing certain things. For example, you should be eating a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet and (after obtaining clearance from your medical doctor) exercising regularly. However, knowing that this is something you should be doing and being driven to do it are two very different things. In order to make healthy lifestyle changes that last, it is helpful to understand and internalize why you are doing them.
We all make decisions all day, every day. Many of those decisions we make because they are easy and expedient or because we saw someone else do them, so we do them without much thought. Often, the decisions you make are not really in accordance with your core values. What are your core values? What are the values that, when you get to the end of your life, you'll be proud to say that you lived according to these core principles. When you think about it, I hope you'll find that "being healthy" is one of your core values. Perhaps it is "being healthy so I can be there for my kids and grandkids and watch them grow up."
If you're reading this article, chances are that staying healthy is one of the values you hold most dear. Once you have identified this as being true, it is much easier to act in accordance with that value. When you pass a donut shop, you don't have to think about whether or not you have "earned a donut" or if you are "craving one." You just have to consider whether or not eating a donut is consistent with your core value of staying healthy. Since it is not, you will pass it up and have a low-fat yogurt or other tasty, healthy treat instead. Similarly, you won't sit on the couch when it is time to go to the gym.
The second problem that many people run into is trying to change too much too quickly. We want change and we want it now! But change that is made to last usually takes time. It takes a lot of energy to change a behavior, whereas it takes almost no energy to follow a habit. Energy is not a never-ending resource and so we have to use it wisely and judiciously. Consider how much energy it takes to force yourself to eat a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner and not snack in between! Now consider how much energy it takes to brush your teeth. Brushing your teeth doesn't require energy or "will power" because it is a learned habit. Going to sleep or waking up without brushing your teeth feels wrong (hopefully!). Similarly, you can train yourself to have a healthy breakfast each morning. Once that is a learned behavior (which should happen after a week or two), it will be a habit and to not eat a healthy breakfast will feel wrong. Then you can work on eating a healthy lunch...and so forth.
Making and maintaining lifestyle changes doesn't have to be difficult. Identify what you want to change and why you want to change it. Is making the change a passing a whim of yours, or is it anchored in your core values? If it is anchored in your core values then let your daily decisions reflect your true values. Make the daily changes small until they are habits, and then make more changes. You can make healthy changes in your life. You can maintain those changes. I know it and so do you. Now go out and do it.
To read more depth to my suggestions for how to make lasting lifestyle changes, check out my book, The Arthritis Handbook: Improve Your Health and Manage the Pain of Osteoarthritis. I hope you have found this blog helpful. I wish you the best of health because with good health, all things are possible.