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How to Stay Motivated in Changing Your Eating and Exercise Habits

Most of us recognize that eating fast food hamburgers and french fries on a regular basis, while involving ourselves in little to no exercise, is not good for our health. But how can you change those behaviors? More importantly, how can you change those behaviors on a long-term basis? I frequently see patients in the office who proclaim their eating and exercise changes to me, only to fall back into their old habits after a few short weeks. Is it possible to actually make meaningful lifestyle changes that will last a lifetime? Yes!

Lifestyle changes, composed mainly of our eating and exercise habits, can be one of the most difficult things for any of us to accomplish. On a daily basis, I am asked by patients, “How can I stay motivated to lose weight, exercise, eat better, etc.?” I’m also often asked why do some people seem to have a better knack for eating well and exercising, while others (I argue, the vast majority of people) struggle to stay on track toward accomplishing their goals? There is actually a considerable amount of scientific research already done as well as a number of studies currently underway to answer both of these questions. Here I present a number of simple skills and practical concepts that you can implement right away into your daily life to help you accomplish your lifestyle goals.

The Science Behind Finding Productive Motivation

Take a second to think about what motivates you to stay healthy. Is it fear of getting sick or following in the footsteps of an ill family member? Do you feel better physically when you eat well and exercise? Do you find joy in caring for yourself? Or, is it difficult to find the motivation to stay healthy in the first place? A few well-designed studies suggest that a large portion of the American population falls into that last category. In fact, a recent study found that only 5% of Americans engage in vigorous exercise on any given day, but over 80% spent a good part of the day watching TV. Is it possible to change these folks? You bet! By educating yourself to discover your own personal motivators, you can change!

Most scientists believe motivation is found from two major places: external and internal sources. External motivators are those we perceive from other people or environments. For example, some people find motivation to lose weight when they receive praise and support from their spouses, friends or physicians. This type of motivation would also include sticking to a healthy lifestyle regimen to avoid getting sick. Internal motivators, on the other hand, come from within and include those that give people a sense of personal accomplishment or pride, or a love for the work they complete. Finding joy in caring for yourself fits this bill perfectly. Most of the research has found that the majority of people try to make drastic lifestyle changes because of one or many external motivators, but it is for this exact reason that most people don’t stick with their goals. More simply put, inspiration may come from watching others, but motivation comes from within. If you look at some of the most successful people around the world, they all have internal motivations for their work that basically comes down to a true love for what they do.

So, how do we find this internal motivation? One newer and very interesting concept includes the idea of “Flow” which has been pioneered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist. He has written a number of books on the idea, and in fact you can watch a brief lecture by Dr. Csikszentmihalyi himself at my new favorite website, www.TED.com. As a side note, I encourage you to check out this site as it is devoted to sharing “riveting talks by remarkable people.” The site has archived hundreds of 5-20 minute talks from scientists, artists, politicians, and businesspeople. So far I have found these to be quite interesting:

Plug into your Hard-wired Happiness

How Stats Fool Juries

Sound Health in 8 Steps

Without getting too philosophical, and it can be difficult to wrap your head around some of the concepts in his books, his theory basically says it is possible for us to live in a state of optimal internal motivation where we feel in “the zone” or in “the groove.” We’ve all experienced this feeling whether it be at a job we truly love, or trying to solve a problem that we’re truly interested in. Think about the time you had to write a paper in school on a topic that you were genuinely interested in and the “paper practically wrote itself.” It is also possible to achieve this sense while working to improve your lifestyle. The basic key comes down to finding the perfect balance between your own personal challenge and acquiring the skills necessary to address that challenge. If you’re interested, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has created a visual representation of this concept.

So taking dietary changes, for example, you will need skills about nutrition including which foods are the most healthy and which are not, but also how to prepare them, how to combine them, etc. Through the accumulation of these skills, you will accrue the tools you need to address challenges such as being overweight, having high blood pressure or diabetes, and so on. After a certain amount of time, you will reach a point when the skills you’ve acquired will make it possible to address any challenge and you will feel “in the groove” to solve these challenges.

Tips to Staying Motivated

So far this all sounds philosophically interesting, but you might be wondering what you can practically do now to move towards this ideal situation. First of all, remember that people like to be good at what they do. Feeling skilled or accomplished is an important human need. Create small and manageable goals. Let’s take exercise for example. If you are currently living a completely sedentary lifestyle, consider a walk around your block, something that might seem challenging right now, but in all likelihood is doable. By the end of your first week of your new exercise regimen, you will feel competent at this basic level, which will in turn create a sense of accomplishment. This ultimately will generate a sense of intrinsic value to sustain motivation and drive you to go to the next step in your program. In other words, challenge yourself to accomplish small and (this part is really important) personally interesting goals. Don’t take up jogging if you loathe the idea of running, but if you’ve been interested in cycling, try a spin in your neighborhood for the first week then move up to a short 3-mile ride and so on.

Take time to make decisions. You have real control to decide what you want to do each day to address your lifestyle choices. By taking this time, you will be able to believe in what is truly worth believing in. For example, I often hear people say that because they have such little time in their daily schedules that it’s not worth “taking on” a new lifestyle. Although it may be true that time is limited, it’s unhelpful to believe that “I don’t have time to make changes,” as there are always ways to make small and manageable goals to get you started.

Be careful not to get complacent with your new regimen; this can quickly breed boredom, which is the number one killer of motivation. If you find yourself getting bored with cooking or exercising, change it up to make it interesting again. Think about the passion you might have for a hobby. How can you integrate that passion into something you do for your own health?

The bottom line is that true motivation comes from within. Finding your internal motivations will make you much more likely to succeed at your goals.  However don’t forget that external sources like friends, family, spiritual leaders, and health care providers can help you acquire the skills you need to face your challenges and find that perfect balance to get you “in the groove.”

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