December 2010

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Making Your Resolutions Stick

How to Create Healthy Habits

New Year’s resolutions—they’re easy to make but easier to break. Why is it so hard to make the healthy changes that we know can help us feel better and live longer? And why is it so hard to make them last? NIH-funded scientists are learning more about how we can make healthy changes and, even more important, how we can sustain them.

“Change is always possible,” says Dr. Linda Nebeling, an expert in behavioral change and nutrition at NIH. You’re never too out-of-shape, too overweight or too old to make healthy changes.

Some of the most common New Year’s resolutions are losing weight, getting more physical activity, eating more nutritious foods, quitting cigarettes, cutting back on alcohol, reducing stress and sleeping better. But no matter which healthy resolution you choose, research suggests that some common strategies can boost your chance of making the change a habit, a part of your daily lifestyle.

“One challenge with New Year’s resolutions is that people often set unrealistic goals. They can quickly become frustrated and give up,” says Nebeling. “Any resolution to change needs to include small
goals that are definable and accompanied by a solid plan on how you’ll get to that goal.”

For instance, a resolution to lose 30 pounds may seem overwhelming. Instead, try setting smaller goals of losing 5 pounds a month for 6 months. Think baby steps rather than giant leaps.

Next, develop an action plan. You might decide to walk a half hour each day to burn calories. You might stop buying vending machine snacks. Or you might limit and keep track of your daily calories. “These are specific behaviors that could help you meet your larger goal of losing 30 pounds,” says Dr. Deborah Tate, an obesity and behavioral researcher at the University of North Carolina.

To make a long-lasting change in your life, prepare yourself for the challenges you might face. “Think about why you want to make the change. Is it important to you, or is it mostly influenced by others—like your doctor, your spouse or a friend?” says Tate. “Research suggests that if it’s something you really want for yourself, if it’s meaningful to you, you’re more likely to stick to it.” 

Think of exactly how the change will enhance your life. For instance, when you stop smoking, your risk plummets for cancer, heart disease, stroke and early death. Reducing stress might cut your risk for heart disease and help you fight off germs. Even small improvements in your physical activity, weight or nutrition may help reduce your risk for disease and lengthen your life. In one study, overweight or obese people who lost just 7% of their body weight slashed their risk for diabetes by nearly 60%. Keeping facts like this in mind can help you maintain your focus over the long haul.

Setting up a supportive environment is another step toward success. “Think about the physical support you’ll need, like the right equipment for exercise, appropriate clothing and the right kinds of foods to have at home,” says Dr. Christine Hunter, a behavioral researcher and clinical psychologist at NIH. Remove items that might trip up your efforts. If you’re quitting smoking, throw away your ashtrays and lighters. To improve your nutrition, put unhealthy but tempting foods on a hard-to-reach shelf, or get rid of them.

Social support is also key. Research shows that people’s health behaviors—like smoking or weight gain—tend to mirror those of their friends, family and spouses. “You can enlist friends and family to help you eat better, to go on walks with you, to remind you to stay on track,” says Tate. “Find things that are fun to do together, and you’ll be more likely to stick with it.”

“It helps when you’re connected to a group, where lifestyle change like weight loss is a joint goal,” says NIH’s Dr. Sanford Garfield, who heads a large study called the Diabetes Prevention Program. Participants who lost weight through dietary changes and physical activity reduced their chances of developing diabetes. Group counseling that emphasized effective diet, exercise and behavior modification were credited, in part, with participants’ success. “There’s a long history of group support leading to good results,” Garfield says.  “People learn from each other and reinforce each other in working toward their goals.”

While making a change is one thing, sticking to it is something else. “Maintaining a change requires continued commitment until the change becomes a part of your life, like brushing your teeth or washing your hair,” says Nebeling. “People who can maintain or engage in efforts to change their behavior, and do it for 6 to 8 weeks, are more likely to be able to support that effort longer term.”

Some researchers are studying people who’ve made lasting healthy changes. The ongoing National Weight Control Registry compiles information on more than 5,000 adults who’ve dropped at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or more. Although the way these people lost their weight varied, those who’ve maintained their weight loss tend to use similar strategies. Notably, many participants track their progress closely, often in a daily journal or diary. If the numbers rise, they have an early warning to adjust their behaviors.

“Self-monitoring or tracking seems to be critical for almost every sort of behavior change,” says Hunter. That includes jotting down the foods you eat, keeping an exercise diary or making a record of your sleeping patterns.

Monitoring yourself might feel like a burden, but it’s one of the best predictors of successful change. “Think about how you can make tracking more convenient, so it fits naturally into your life,” Hunter says. For some people, that might be a pad of paper in a purse or pocket; for others, a mobile app or a computer program.

Make sure to have a plan to get back on track if you start to slip. “If you feel that your motivation is waning, think back and remind yourself why the change was important to you in the first place,” says Tate. “Maybe you wanted to have more stamina, feel better, to be able to play with grandchildren. Recalling these personal reasons can encourage you to get back on track.”

Of course, you don’t need a new year to make healthy changes; you can make them any time of the year. But New Year’s is an opportunity to think about the improvements you’d like to make and then take concrete steps to achieve them. Set realistic goals, develop an action plan and set it in motion. Make your new year a healthy one.