Do you ever remember thinking, “No matter how hard I try, I never seem to change and/ or sustain my desired health habits”? If so, you are not alone!
Research has discovered that only 20% of individuals actually conquer a long-term problematic health behavior, and maintain that behavior on the first attempt. For instance, the average smoker attempts to quit seven times before he or she is successful. So, why is it most of us struggle with changing our health behaviors? Well, first, it’s important to understand the science of change. The more you understand the theories, and processes of health behavior change, the greater chance for long-term success.
Let’s begin by defining “change”. Health psychologists define change as a process, not an event. There is more to changing than just waking up and saying, “Today is the day!” Change is not simply like flipping on a light switch. It is a meaningful process of transformative self-enrichment. Imagine a room filled with unlit candles. You light one and things begin to become apparent. You start seeing things you never noticed before. You might become more aware of or in touch with feelings inside of you. As you light more and more candles, you become bathed in a new, warm glow. You have not only illuminated yourself, you have illuminated your entire world.
To begin your transformative process of change, leverage some of the evidence based, scientific theories and processes below to begin your healthy behavior change journey!
The Self-Efficacy theory is one theory of health behavior change. Self-efficacy is defined as one’s ability to achieve a specific task or a specific health behavior. Having a high degree of self-efficacy, or confidence that you can achieve your health behavior change goal is essential for success. Improved self-efficacy has been shown to improve your chance of long term behavior change. Self efficacy is situational. So, you should also discover which situations you lack full confidence in to sustain your health behaviors and goals, and work on strengthening those areas. For instance, some may find it easy to maintain their exercise and diet goals during their normal daily routines. However, they may struggle to maintain these routines when traveling. Knowing this information you can develop strategies to overcome potential barriers in order to strengthen your self-efficacy in all situations, leading to long-term success!
In order to recover from slips and setbacks (short term) in your change journey or relapses (long term) you must develop resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from challenges right away. If you slip on your diet or exercise goals, don’t wait days, an entire weekend, or even weeks to get back on track, bounce back the same day for better chance of long-term success.
Research has proven that those who sustain long-term behavior change build strong social support systems to assist them in their change journey. Think about people that can help you and what you need, as well as what you don’t need from them to assist. For instance, if you need your family to support you with improved dietary habits, ask them to support your healthy choices, but not to “police” or judge you in the process. You may ask a friend to exercise with you, or have someone on hand to call to talk to when challenges arise.
Scientists have found that our thoughts wield a great deal of power over our behaviors. It is important to monitor your automatic thought responses to situations and ensure they are positive. Whenever a choice or situation arises, we have an automatic thought. That situation leads to an automatic thought, that leads to a behavior. For example, you may be working hard to maintain your weight and you are faced with the opportunity to indulge in a high calorie dessert. If your automatic thought is,“I deserve this dessert, I have had a tough day”, chances are you will indulge. If you monitor your thought, and restructure to a more positive one such as, “I have worked so hard to get to this weight, I want to stay the course and will feel better if I don’t eat the dessert”, chances are you will not eat the dessert. So, monitor your automatic thoughts, look for patterns, and work on restructuring your thoughts to more positive ones for long-term success.
Grit is defined in the literature as a combination of very high perseverance and passion for an objective or goal. The more gritty you are, the better chance you will do whatever it takes to achieve your health behavior change goals. Monitor your grittiness, discover when you are most vulnerable, and strengthen your grit by pushing through the difficult times, even if a little more each time, to prevail.
Remember, researchers have defined change as a process not a destination. To succeed you must look at change as progress and a process. And, progress takes time. A good mantra could be “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Accept health behavior change as a journey and not a quick fix. Be patient and persevere to reach your ultimate health behavior change goals.
Be self-kind instead of self-critical. You can self-sabotage your change journey if you constantly criticize your every action. It’s important that you be kind to yourself and keep in mind that this is hard work. Remind yourself that change is progress, not just full on action. Focusing on what you did do, as opposed to what didn't do, will point out the progress you are making. You may get tired, you may get mentally weak and weary at times, but you must continue to focus on your end goal and continue on your change journey. However, if you do slip, don't beat yourself up about it. If you do, it will lead to more self-destructive behaviors, and not positive progress.
It has been cited in numerous research studies that one of the main reasons people fail at first attempts to change is they jump into full on action without adequate preparation time. It is critical that you adequately prepare for your change journey. Some ways to prepare include identifying potential barriers to long-term success. And, once identified, discover solutions to overcome any obstacles that may inhibit your progress. Other ways to prepare include developing goals and objectives, and a written plan, a roadmap of how you intend on achieving your health behavior change goals.
Although goal setting is a critical component of the behavior change process, setting unreasonable goals can impede success. Set SMART goals; those that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timebased. For you to succeed, ensure you set reasonable, realistic goals and expectations that are achievable at the point in time in which you set them. Your goals may need readjusting at times due to lifecycle events or unexpected events that occur in your life that can slow you down. But, that’s ok. Just be realistic in your expectations to ensure you can continue to progress in your change journey.
In the health behavior change process, you will most likely have setbacks. View these setbacks as learning opportunities that can help you identify patterns in your behavior and/or potential situations that may be particularly challenging. Uncovering this information can be very beneficial to your long-term success. So, view the setback as a learning experience versus a failure to continue progressing on your change journey.
Health behavior change is a dynamic science that is continuing to evolve. However, The above dos and don’ts have been studied for decades, and proven to be effective at assisting individuals in their journey toward personal enrichment and change. The most important thing to remember is to keep moving forward, move step-by-step to conquer your challenges, and reveal your power to change your life for good. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, she discovered the power of her ruby slippers, realizing she had the power within her all along. Remember, you have the Power - Let your change begin!
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