Another New Year - Another Opportunity for Success!
Ryan Bradley, ND, MPH January, 2008
For many the New Year is a time for making resolutions about things we are not happy with in our lives; for some these resolutions are about family and relationships, for many others, especially those people who manage diabetes, resolutions are about health-related goals and commitments.
This may sound a bit discouraging (which I hope it is not) but I tend to think New Year’s resolutions are over-rated. Let’s face the truth: it is almost impossible to take 20, 40 or even 60 years of living behaviors and habits and change them in a lasting manner overnight! Also for some, breaking a resolution equates to not being successful in a commitment and this can lead to a spiral of self-destructive behavior.
However, the New Year is an excellent opportunity to plan a strategy for successful change throughout the year - including how best to align resources for change! In last year’s New Year’s Complementary Corner I gave background and advice on diabetes and self-care in diabetes, including diet and exercise tips (See Complementary Corner January, 2007). In this New Year’s edition of Complementary Corner I’ll leave aside the technical descriptions of nutritional supplements, herbs and drugs, and focus instead on the number one element for successful management of diabetes: planning to successfully reach your health goals!
How Do I Plan for Successful Change?
Planning for success is subtly, but significantly, different than planning for a lack of failure. The difference is the mental shift required to put your success at the forefront of your thinking, rather than remaining in fear of failure and attempting to avoid it! Fear blocks our potential and can consume our dreams.
Successful behavior change requires identifying changes that are:
- Provide Reward - and Challenge
An incremental approach is usually much more conducive to success than an “all or nothing” approach. For example, you are going on vacation and want to lose 50 pounds in a few months by strictly reducing calories, avoiding your favorite foods and exercising every day (when previously you did not exercise at all) is not particularly realistic. However, a goal to lose 20 pounds in three months by reducing your portion size on meals, replacing nutrient deplete but calorie-dense foods with nutritious whole foods and starting to exercise three days a week for 30 minutes per day is more likely to be successful. Although you may not be down to the exact bathing suit size or waist size that you ultimately want to achieve, you have started the process, have been successful and still are able to feel better about yourself on vacation knowing you are reaching your goals!
Your end goal can certainly stay the same, but the approach and thought process to reach the goal can influence its chances of success. The differences in thought can be subtle! For examples, a mental goal of 50 pounds of weight loss will result in a lot of days not being successful as 50 pounds takes a long time to lose! But an alternative goal of losing 1 pound per week allows for many small successes towards your goal. Although this amount of weight loss does not sound particularly significantly, imagine this rate over 1 year. This is 52 pounds of weight loss - and 52 small successes every week! By this time next year (Is one year really that long to change your health forever?), you have met your final goal, incrementally and sustainably!
Do You Love Yourself Enough to Change?
Positive behavioral change requires motivation and, at some level, self-love. Because conditions like diabetes go on for a long time before they become symptomatic, many positive behaviors don’t immediately make us feel better* (although exercise usually does!). Changes toward a healthier lifestyle are not like drugs; the effects are not immediate. Unfortunately, eating 4 servings of vegetables per day for a week is not going to undo 30 years of eating only French fries and ketchup as vegetables (interesting that the USDA considers French fries and ketchup vegetables at all!). So where does the motivation come from? Why bother making changes that don’t make me feel better? This is hard question to answer, but I think the answer is self-love and love for others in our lives.
*Although I speak above about positive dietary and exercise changes not making us feel better immediately, after as little as a few weeks, eating more nutritious foods and getting regular exercise improves physical energy, mental energy, mood and often reduces pain, anxiety and depression.
The recommendations to eat 4-5 servings of vegetables and fruits are not made up; vegetables, legumes, low fat dairy, fish and select whole grains are really the only foods that are definitively “good for you” and the recommendations are legitimate. So, given that you aren’t going to immediately feel better following that extra serving of collard greens, it really takes a commitment to your health and a love of yourself to follow a healthy diet.
In clinic, I often hear from patients that they cannot make some of the changes I recommend because of responsibilities to family members and friends that consume their time. I suggest that this is a short-sighted vision, and while sometimes we simply do not have time available because of responsibilities to others, often it is more the mental stress of caring for others that keeps us from caring for ourselves. In the context of diabetes, it really is the commitment to self-care that will allow you to be there for friends, family and loved-ones much longer and much healthier then self-sacrificing your health for the short term!
If this section of the article brought out sadness about yourself or your family, I apologize and encourage you to find a counselor, therapist or physician to discuss these feelings. Addressing emotional health, including depression and addiction, is critical to success. Resources, including medication and supplemental treatments, are available and are effective.
Take Inventory and Align Your Positive Resources! (While Reducing or Eliminating Negative Resources)
Like traveling in an unknown city, knowing exactly where you are starting is critical to ending up where you need to arrive! Literally sitting down and thinking carefully about the positive and negative influences and “resources” that you have in your life is essential for getting from Point A to Point B.
In some cases, these resources are physical resources like a new exercise bike. For others, these resources are personal resources like your family or community support network. For others still, resources include health care decisions like changing your physician if you are not satisfied with your care or adding another provider type, e.g. nutritionist or complementary medicine provider, to your health care team.
It is important to think about positive resources that are available to you as well as the “negative” influences that are around you. Sometimes it may be hard to tell the difference at first glance. Consider making a list. Examples of positive resources maybe include: family members, friends, physicians, local parks, cooking classes, cookbooks, the local gym, community resource centers, diabetes support groups, programs offered by your employer and local clubs and organizations. A list may look like (but will likely be much longer):
- Local swimming pool
- Friends - Judy & Ralph
- Local community center support group
- Daughter - Jill
- Dr. Arnold
- Diabetes Action Newsletter & Website
- Cupboards filled with white flour
- “Friends”- Jim and Eileen
- Snacks at work meetings
- Cost of fresh food
- Work stress
- Husband Jake's attitude toward vegetables!
- Exercise clothing for the rain
- Nutritionist & cookbooks on Mediterranean cooking
- Time to cook!
- Smaller lancets to check my sugars
- A medication case organized by the day of the week
A quick review of this list above displays both positive and negative resources some of which are more easily changed! Time and money are recurring obstacles to change - yet some creative brainstorming can often provide some solutions. Challenges can arise with family food preferences and expectations on family responsibilities in particular. However, frozen peas and broccoli are inexpensive, nutritious and readily available and even if other family members aren’t interested, this should not stop you from eating more healthily. Cooking in the evening or on a weekend afternoon for the entire week can help ensure you are eating good food throughout the week. A few dollars saved on a latte’ out provides enough cash to drop in at the local pool or gym to variety to otherwise free walks around a park or neighborhood trail. Reviewing your “resource list” with another person can help get another’s perspective on how they address similar challenges.
Set Your Own Goals
Setting your own goals, and obtaining them, is critical to successful behavior change. Although physicians are great at telling patients what to do and how many pills to take, it has been proven ineffective for doctors to take this type of attitude in recommending lifestyle changes. However, your physician can be an excellent part of your support network. Getting your physician’s advice on goals, like weight loss, can be helpful provided your physician is willing to have some back-and-forth dialogue on how to achieve the changes he or she recommends and is willing to set some incremental goals that you agree to and commit to reach.
Creating an incremental plan for change is very important. I would recommend setting short-term goals in all the areas of your lifestyle that you feel need some change. This can become overwhelming, so start slowly. Start with goals for the next day or week, then gradually begin thinking over the next 1-3 months. A good goal for the next day may be to eat one less snack during the day, or walk for 5 more minutes. A good weekly goal may be to add 5 minutes to each workout or add one more exercise session in for the week. A good once-monthly goal may be to be sure your doctor visits are in order for the next few months and call to schedule those appointments that are not on the calendar.
I would resist the urge to plan ahead too far and I would consider keeping a regular schedule of reviewing your goals and progress. Remember to give yourself credit for goals reached and instead of criticizing yourself for goals not reached, critically evaluate your reasons for not reaching them as well as possible solutions for reaching the next time around. You can probably tell, this is a process that requires commitment to change- yet it also becomes easier and easier as the changes made become less foreign and more a part of your new lifestyle - so hang in there!
Visualize and Ask, “Is this Plan Realistic - for ME?”
The most important element of a plan for successful change is that you can see yourself completing each part of the plan; you must be able to visualize your success in order to achieve it! This may sound absurd or a little “woo-woo” or “fringy”, but all highly performing individuals, whether corporate CEOs or professional athletes recognize the value of visualization in being successful. Structure studies have shown that visualization of sports performance combined with moderate practice is as, or more, effective than intensive practice without visualization. We can manifest anything we ask for in our lives - everyday we bring opportunity and obstacle into our lives - consider practicing manifesting your improved health by visualizing yourself reaching your goals. If you are unable to do so, you have started too aggressively and it is time to review you goals and move in smaller increments.
Don’t Go At It Alone
Friends, family members, counselors and local community organizations can provide critical support networks to assist with making positive changes. Walking and exercise groups can be extremely helping in dragging you outside on a walk when the weather isn’t very good or picking you up for an exercise class when you don’t have access to transportation. Cooking classes can be great avenues for support as well as provide new skills. Chances are there are others in your community seeking exactly the type of support you seek. If your community lacks a walking club, cooking class or diabetes support group, consider forming one. Place an ad in the newspaper and hold a meeting of interested persons. Considering holding a “Diabetes Potluck” where everyone brings healthy food and you consider new recipes as a group. Remember you can assist others in meeting their goals too!
Although support from others can be extremely helpful, remember the ultimate commitment is to yourself and your health. If your walking buddy is out of town, get yourself out there anyway!
Reward Yourself - Carefully
Part of the fun of challenge and reaching your goals is the rewards that follow; rewards provide motivation for continued performance. For mountaineers, this reward is viewing the world from high above offering a different perspective on land and the people below (or perhaps on the triviality of the our day-to-day jobs!). For performance athletes, the reward may be monetary, fame or simply the inner joy of performing well. For the high-stakes, high-reward activity of lifestyle change, rewards are also critical to success!
Unfortunately in our culture the things we tend to “reward” ourselves with are actually detrimental; often we “reward” ourselves with unhealthy food like dessert or a night on the town (often including a drink or two too many). While trying to move ourselves to improved health through lifestyle change, it is important to consider “healthful” rewards. For example, a healthful reward may be a new pair of shoes to exercise more comfortably, or a massage to help recover faster and relax those aching muscles. A reward may be a night out (minus the alcohol) to see a show, movie or a night dancing with friends. A reward may be spending a bit more for fresh ingredients at the local farmer’s market or for that fancier (but smaller) bar of extra dark chocolate! Rewards need not cost money either - a no-cost reward may be some time to read that new book you haven’t been able to start or a long bath at home. Ask your friends and family members to support you as well by assisting with your rewards - an hour of babysitting or some assistance around the house.
We are surrounded by a lot of influences that seem to encourage following a less-healthy lifestyle. TV commercials promote artificially colored foods in boxes, drug ads tell us we don’t need to do anything differently to be healthy, most city planners who would rather build new condos than create a park for public exercise, and costly exercise facilities make physical fitness more exclusive. Like everything in life worth having, whether successful relationships or education, a healthy lifestyle requires hard work. For people with diabetes, having a healthy lifestyle requires even more work because of the challenges of managing such a complex disease. Yet, with diabetes, having a healthy lifestyle is critically important to long-term health and fitness. Plus you provide an example for the growing numbers of children and young adults developing diabetes. I hope that this article helps you to organize your thoughts and helps you create and reach incremental goals for your long-term health. Change is a process requiring more than well-intentioned resolutions; instead use your resolutions to stimulate your thinking and your personal process for successful, long-lasting change. Happy New Year to you and your family!
In Health - Ryan Bradley, ND, MPH