There aren’t many people who really like change. Perhaps if the change is something we choose willingly then we feel more positively about it than if it’s forced on us. It’s important to take this on board if you want to make changes to your behaviours that affect your health. In this article we’re going to talk about:
- Changing your health behavior.
- How change works.
- How to make it work for you.
- How to change willingly.
It takes a little practice and dedication, but it needn’t be difficult.
If you’re serious about taking charge of your health then this article will help you do that. It’s quite long, so:
- Make a cup of tea and
- take it slowly.
- Bookmark it so you can come back and digest it over time.
Changing your health behavior.
In this blog-post article about quitting sugar, the blogger talks about the process of change and why understanding it was important for her. Understanding the process will help you succeed too.
The first rule of behavior change and being your own health coach is motivation.
Remember when you where a child and were told to do something you didn’t want to do? It was boring, right? Maybe you did as you were told and maybe you didn’t. But if you didn’t want to do it (ie you weren’t motivated) you may not have done it very well.
If you’re not bought into doing something, then doing it well is tough. That’s not something that changes when we’re adults.
Motivations can be internal and/or external, and they tend to take us either towards some sort of pleasure or away from some sort of pain.
External motivators include things that are imposed on you and are often beyond your control. For example:
- Being judged on what you do/how you do it/an outcome. Think of a manager judging your work performance/financial bonus, or having a job interview.
- Having a gun (literally or figuratively) to your head and being told to do a task.
- A threat of some kind looming over you (other than the gun to the head) such as a health problem, threat to something or someone important to you – a friend, your job etc.
Internal motivations, as the name suggests, come from within us. They can be just as powerful as external motivations but are also longer lasting. They include:
- Wanting to do a good job for the sake of doing a good job – the job or the outcome is reward enough for you.
- Determination to prove someone wrong or right. As a health example: ‘I bet you can’t run a marathon/lose 30lbs etc’, ‘you can do it, I know you can’.
- You’re doing it for yourself, for your own sense of accomplishment or perhaps just for the feeling it gives you. That feeling might be a better sense of smell and taste if you are giving up smoking, or having more energy if you’re giving up sugar or losing weight.
These motivators are also called extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.
Your motivation is YOUR REASON WHY. And it’s hugely important.
It’s the thing that will keep you going towards your goal and beyond when maintaining the change you’ve made is difficult. If it helps, write down your reason(s), display them somewhere you’ll see and read them regularly, and say them to yourself often. “I will do this because…”
We’ll come back to this later – it really is that important!
How health behavior change works.
There’s a lot of science and psychology behind helping people change their behviour. One of the simplest ways to get your head around it is what psychologists call the Trans Theoretical Model or States of Change Model. Don’t worry about the name – it’s easy to understand and here’s what it looks like:
And this is what it means. See if you can recognize which stage you’re at now.
Starting at the top of the diagram at the Pre-contemplation Stage.
Here you’re perhaps not even aware than you need to make health improvements. If you are, then you may consciously avoid reading, listening to or watching anything about them. You may be in denial or making excuses – eg ‘everyone is overweight in my family. We’re big boned’, or ‘my grandpa lived until he was 95 and smoked 30 a day, so I don’t need to give up,’ or ‘I’ve tried to stop drinking so much loads of times but it’s hopeless’.
Does any of this sound familiar?
To get past this stage you need to feel that something you’re doing to your health is at odds with your personal goals or values.
In simple terms: Something needs to change because you can’t go on like this – it’s not who you are or who you want to be.
Move round to the right of the diagram, to Contemplation Stage.
This is where you are considering making changes. But don’t worry if you’re reading this thinking ‘yes, but I’ve been thinking about it for ages’. Research shows that people can be at this stage for 6 months or more before they begin the process of taking action.
At this stage you know what you’re doing to your health is a problem. Perhaps the bathroom scale is telling you that, and your clothes are too tight. Perhaps you’ve got a cough that won’t go or a new partner says your breath smells like an ashtray. If these triggers are at odds with who you are or want to be, then you could on your way to making change.
You will be weighing up the costs and benefits of making a change to your health behavior – the comfort of having chocolate cake against the tight waistband on your skirts or pants, for example.
To coach yourself through the Contemplation Stage, ask yourself a few questions, such as:
- What do I like about the way things are/the way I am at the moment?
- What do I not like about the status quo – what ‘price’ do I have to pay for the way things are now?
- What will I like about making a change?
- Why do I want to do this? Look at the section on motivators above.
- Will it be worth it?
- Am I patient enough to wait for results?
When the urge is strong enough, you’ll move onto the next stage. This is Preparation.
At the Preparation Stage you:
- Know you must change
- Believe you can
- Are making plans to make changes soon.
Your journey needs some planning, so this is where you are thinking about potential obstacles and things that might trip you up. For example, if you’re a smoker and are used to having a cigarette and a drink with friends, how will you manage? If you want to take more exercise but have a busy lifestyle, how will you fit it in?
You may be telling people about your plans and asking for their support. You may have joined a gym and bought some exercise apparel. You may have spoken to your doctor about nicotine replacement or about counselling for alcohol/drug use.
Questions to ask yourself at this stage are:
- What will be difficult about making a change?
- How confident do I feel to be able to overcome challenges that will come up when I make the change.
- Who can help me?
- What other strategies do I have or need to deal with obstacles or snags along the way?
- What do I need to do to be more confident? You can rate confidence on a 1 to 10 scale.
Answer these honestly and do what you need to so that you’re ready: You’re on your way.
The Action Stage speaks for itself.
You’re starting to make the changes you’ve been meaning to make and you’re experiencing life without the old behavior.
There will be positives and negatives about this new way of being, so this is where it’s really important to remember why you’re doing this.
Remember your motivation. Remember your REASONS WHY.
If you wrote them down then dig them out and read them aloud and feel them deep down inside.
This stage of you being your own health coach needs a positive mindset.
Once you’re on your way and the training wheels or water wings are off, after about 6 months you’re into the Maintenance Stage.
The Maintenance Stage is about working to prevent Relapse (see the diagram again) and making the change fit into your life more seamlessly.
You may be finding that you need to avoid people or situations that might trigger a Relapse. These should be situations you were thinking about at the Preparation Stage and you can tie them in to your reasons why – your motivations for making the change.
It’s important to understand that this whole cycle can take a few turns before the new healthier behavior sticks.
Relapse is common.
Relapse is not failure – for many people it’s part of the process.
Each time you relapse you learn something about yourself that can be useful next time you try to change your behavior.
How to make health behaviour change work for you.
The key to making any sort of change, including changes that can improve your health, is to nail your motivation. Arguably, your motivation is more important than your actual goal, because without it you may not reach your goal.
But let’s look at goals, because they are important.
If you’re someone who likes to write things down or draw them out on paper, put them on a spreadsheet or in a Word document, then do that.
Write down or pictorialize your goal. Give it some detail and make it specific. You probably know about SMART goals – these are:
S – Specific
M – Measureable
A – Achievable
R – Realistic
T – Timed/Timely.
An example in weight loss would be:
‘I want to lose 10lbs in the next 2 months.’
Average healthy weight loss is about 2lbs per week, so that should give me plenty of time to shed 10lbs.
If the goal was ‘I want to lose 10lbs before the end of the week’ that wouldn’t be realistic or achievable without chopping off a couple of limbs and removing some major organs!
Equally, ‘I want to lose some weight’ isn’t specific enough (how will you know if you’ve reached your goal?) or timed – a deadline is an effective motivator.
Research shows that working on one goal at a time will give you the best results over all. New Year’s resolutions that include ‘lose weight, AND stop smoking AND go running 3 times a week’ are least likely to work. This is because your concentration for all these things as well as all you have to do every day means you’re setting yourself up to fail.
If you know you need to lose weight and stop smoking for your health, talk to your doctor about which will bring the best/fastest health improvements.
Once you have your goal, move on to your motivations.
- Look again at the section on motivators above – they are the things that will make your goals come to life.
Some of your motivations for change will be internal and some will be external.
Write them all down. Even the silly ones – no one else needs to see this list if you don’t want them to. These are your REASONS WHY you want to do this.
- Now set them aside for a day or 2 and come back to them when you’re feeling fresher, and add any others that have occurred to you.
- Take each motivation – each ‘because’ – and mull it over so that you really feel and emotional connection to the reason.
- In your mind you could make the ‘WHY’ big and colourful, significant and important. Imagine your disappointment at not achieving the goal.
If thinking about your motivations brings up an emotional reaction inside you, then you’ve nailed it.
If it doesn’t, or really only feels luke-warm, then either dig a bit deeper or find another more emotional motivator. To dig deeper you might want to ask yourself why that motivator isn’t as important as you thought it was; ask yourself what’s most important to you in your life right now.
Motivation is what keeps you moving past what you want now
(an easy life, a cigarette, a burger)
and onto what you want most.
How to make health behavior changes happily and easily.
Finding your motivations for change should tip you from the status quo into actually wanting to make changes.
But change takes patience and inspiration, so your mindset needs to be around enjoying the journey of health behavior change. These questions and tips will help:
- Be in the moment – think about the good things have happened today because of the changes you’ve made.
- What I have learned about myself?
- What can I do now that I couldn’t do before?
- If you like to write things down then journal your journey. Look back over the pages to see how far you’ve come.
- How do I feel?
- What are my health numbers – blood pressure, weight, lung tests, etc?
- How have my relationships with those around me changed for the better?
- Don’t expect too much too soon.
- Talk to other people who are doing something similar. You can inspire them and they can help you.
- Discover more about the benefits of what you’re doing.
Good luck – and have happy health improvements.