5 Weeks to a Healthier Heart: Take the Challenge

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

It’s a new year and for most people that means new resolutions. Health resolutions often fail because we aim too high, we’re not realistic about what’s really doable, or we commit only because society tells us to change. We treat the resolutions in an “all or nothing” way, which means that the first time we fail, we often give up. The key to keeping resolutions or new habits is to:

  • Be specific when identifying new habits or goals

  • Allow the habit adequate time to become a regular and comfortable part of your life (21 days or more)

  • Have a way to measure or assess progress

  • Make sure the habits you choose are reasonable, achievable, and specific to your needs

  • Do not let momentary lapses equal complete failure

  • Celebrate small successes but don’t get cocky

  • Link a “benefit” to the new habit and think of that benefit every time you repeat the new behavior

Pathway to a healthier heart

If being proactive about wellness and your health is your motivation, then focusing on heart health can have a huge payoff. Adopting heart-healthy habits can help you to maintain a good quality of life, have you feeling younger and more energetic, delay or prevent disease, and possibly extend your life. These heart-healthy habits can also improve your risk profile for other diseases like obesity, diabetes and “inflammatory” conditions like arthritis and cancers. That’s because the new behaviors for your heart - can have a global impact on your health.

If you have a diagnosis of heart disease, then it’s never too late to change and improve your heart health. Your body is incredibly resilient, and even in the face of serious disease, lifestyle habit changes can improve your quality-of-life, and possibly allow you to reduce the dosages of certain medications or allow you to use fewer medications. Research suggests that an aspirin a day may not be a good practice for all aging individuals, so it’s even more important to have heart healthy habits. These new habits may also have a positive impact on other conditions you might have like diabetes.

Maintaining new habits

What’s the key to adopting a new habit and sustaining it long term? It only takes a few exposures to adopt a bad habit. Two separate donut feedings and you will likely be hooked! Undoing a several year donut habit will likely not take the 21 days that you may have heard is long enough to form and keep a good habit. In fact, there appears to be great variability among people when it comes to changing a habit and then no longer feeling like you need enormous willpower to keep it going. The goal should be a feeling of automaticity or a feeling that the behavior is not hard to do, but rather, pretty natural. A 2009 study suggests that it can take almost two months, 66 days, for many people to achieve that level of comfort with a new behavior. The key is repetition and consistency.

Steven Covey’s 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People listed being proactive, seeing the end in your mind at the beginning, and putting first things first, as three of those seven habits. You need to believe that these changes are necessary and that they will profoundly improve your heart health. Also make sure you are health literate, meaning that you understand the health information our program recommends. Health literacy is crucial to heart health.

The 5-week challenge

This challenge offers a new heart-focused habit every week for five weeks. You will be asked to evaluate your comfort level with the new habit at the end of each week. If you don’t feel secure in that habit, then you can take more time and use the challenge to guide your personal journey at whatever pace is comfortable. If it takes you more time – so be it. Some people do appear to be habit-resistant, which just means they take a longer period of time to embrace change. Remember that you are disabling one habit as you introduce the replacement behavior – so it’s a complex process. The point is to ultimately build habits on top of habits so that there is profound change in your lifestyle, without horrific discomfort or numerous failure points. The new behavior needs to become automatic and the behavior goal is to “feel bad” if you don’t do it.

Remember that the longer you’ve had a habit – the longer it may take to replace it. Long term habits are entrenched at the neural level. You need to break the link between the habit and the pleasure (reward) it provides. It’s complicated but your mind is malleable.

The challenge will address committing to screenings, diet, exercise, stress reduction, sleep and compliance with disease management. You will be given specific recommendations but you can also add on to these behaviors. There will be recommendations if you feel yourself slipping or struggling to maintain the changes. Get excited and consider this the year of true change!!

Get started!

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at healthgal.com. Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”