A fellow trainer friend (we’ll call her “Cupcake”), has a pesky habit of consuming large quantities of sweets, and recently conveyed to me that she agreed to a seven day detox with another friend following the holidays. The intent, like many quick diet fads, had the intent of resetting the body, both of bad habits and unhealthy foods, all without the long term commitment of actually fixing the habits and the added bonus of losing a few pounds in a week.
And because I’m a true friend, I listened graciously to Cupcake’s grand plans of eliminating everything but melons, berries and 1 gallon of water for Day 1, followed by a more satiating Day 2 of raw veggies with a baked sweet potato for lunch. The detox finale worked its way up to Feast Day of Cabbage Soup on Day 7.
So on Day 1, I sent her my text of encouragement to ask how the detox was going. Still in New Year’s Resolution-Motivational Mood, she responded (in part), “About to go to the store to buy more fruit and the rest of what I need for the cleanse. Because no matter what, I’m going to finish it!”
Six hours later, the struggle became apparent once the cravings started coming. Cupcake: “…besides craving real food, the biggest challenge is trying to drink a gallon of water a day. Makes it hard to nap when every 5 min you have to go on a pee break.”
But because she’s a Spartan, I knew her intrinsic motivation to better her health would kick in to overcome her cravings. So when the next text came in around dinnertime, I had to step back to grasp the reality of Cupcake’s failure. “8 hours into the cleanse, the hunger got the best of me. Tried to be strong but couldn’t go on.” [Included: photo of a perfectly cooked store bought pizza, rising crust.]
Although part of me desired Cupcake’s success in her detox trial, experience beckoned me to realize the odds were against her. (Plus, a success story is much less entertaining.) So I felt it timely in our one week anniversary of the new year, to analyze why resolutions and goal setting might not be in the best interest of your health, and to propose that behavior change might be the better bet this year. That may sound like a contradiction, but slight differences exist in these goal setting mindsets. Although not entirely separate from one another, behavior change almost always must precede goals for resolution success.
To be honest, this comes from a somewhat hypocritical perspective, as I’m notorious for setting New Year’s Resolutions each year. But I’ve also developed a system for my resolutions, before realizing that I was actually employing behavior change techniques. So I want to share with you a few of those techniques, plus others, to help encourage you in developing new healthy habits, one at a time.
To start off, let’s break down what I mean by behavior change. To do that, I need to talk about habits. Some estimates state that 40% of our daily activities are done out of habit. Things like getting out of bed, our morning routine, checking our phone in the car, etc. become unconscious activities that we don’t expend extra energy thinking about them. Many of them have benign effects on our well-being, so we don’t think much of them. Others, however, can be presented up against knowledge that they may be harmful (i.e. smoking, bad diet), but still that knowledge does not deter practice.
The concept behind behavior change is assessing what long term accomplishments you want to change (weight loss, happy marriage, grateful children) and taking daily mini-steps to accomplish that end. It means tweaking the 40% of the mindless activities you do each day, and convert one of them into a mindful, intentional activity until that new activity also becomes mindless, i.e. a habit. Some of them are borne out of necessity (adapting to kids’ school schedule), and others borne out of convenience (keeping a burp cloth in every room). Still other habit changes arise when we encounter a heart change. These, I would argue, become the most difficult to address, because they require an acknowledgement of failure in the past, and the desire to set a higher standard for ourselves.
Despite the mantra that “nobody likes change,” some changes like the first examples can be fairly easy, because they elicit early positive rewards to make the new habits stick (i.e. kids at school, I now have free time). Habits of the heart, however, require something a bit deeper and perhaps, more costly of us, not always with immediate rewards, and therefore have a higher failure rate.
Early on in my personal training career, I had a hard time comprehending the necessary heart change of clients towards fitness success. I was baffled that people would ask me for advice, and even hire me to help them, and then not do any of the things I suggested. I believed in change by osmosis…people would change based on the knowledge I offered them. Ten years later, I’ve learned much more about human behavior, and realized that’s it not me who can convince you to change. The only person you can convince is yourself. However, there are a few tools I can offer to help you make small changes, which I’ve found (and so has some research) to be invaluable to the process of human behavior change.
1. Acceptance. Before you start analyzing what you need to change in your life, accept yourself as a person. Many times body weight issues stem from self acceptance issues. You may feel guilty for being overweight or not exercising, but at the same time maybe the guilt comes from abandonment, abuse or other psychological issues from the past. Accept that as part of your struggle, and make the positive your motivation, not the negative. Trying to make changes based on guilt, fear or shame can leave you feeling exhausted trying to please someone else (even if that “person” only exists in your mind). If self-acceptance is an area of struggle, consider hiring a Health Coach or Counselor to develop positive reinforcement for your character.
2. Surrender. Similar to acceptance, but this concept is more spiritually minded. Although you may not find a lot of research on meditation correlating specifically to behavior change, you can find a lot on the benefits of meditating in general. Related to this is the practice of visualizing and positive thinking, seeing in your mind how you want things to go. A great passage from the Bible says this, “…we take every thought captive…(2 Corinthians 10:15).” A necessary step in behavior change is acknowledging your failure in current habits, and realizing the need for help in order to change. Without this step, we will continue to seek out ways to succeed on our own…signing up 6-week Body Makeovers, 7-day Diets, unused gym memberships, and more. Surrendering acknowledges that you don’t have the answers, and you will listen for healthy ways to change.
One of my favorite authors, Max Lucado, offers this anecdote on thinking in his book, Anxious for Nothing, “Your challenge is not your challenge. Your challenge is the way you think about your challenge. Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you look at it.”
3. Choose one. It’s easy to get carried away on January 1 with all the New Year, New You concepts, but to increase your odds of success, just choose one thing to work on in the immediate future. The great thing about behavior change is it’s evolving. If your goal is weight loss, think about the mindless habits that might contribute to that, and focus on changing one of them (rather than say, a detox). One example might be the practice of setting the entire pot of spaghetti on the table, taunting you after you finished your plate. A behavior change would involve keeping the pot on the stove, or even packing it up after making your plate. That diminishes the temptation to eat more before realizing you’re already full.
4. Companionship. My friend referenced earlier, Cupcake, had asked me about my plans for this year, specifically if I intended to run any races this year (after 2 kids, I have taken a unintended hiatus for the past 4 years). I gave my assent in this conversation that indeed, I was hoping to start racing again, even ordered new running shoes after Christmas. A few days later, I received a message from another friend asking about doing a half marathon in April. Time to commit my words to real goals. The point is, whatever you want to achieve this year (or whenever), and you know it’s going to be a tough goal, seek support. (I would add that often when you surrender first, you will discover companionship around the corner.) Whether it’s a Facebook group, a magazine or email subscription, or a personal buddy, find people doing what you want to do, and be inspired by them.
4. Self-talk/Interviewer: Ideally in your wellness journey, you would have access to a competent and well trained Health Coach to assess your motivation and help bring out your emotions towards change. In reality, most people try to succeed on their own, and if that’s you, just keep this technique in mind. Ask yourself questions constantly. When the ice cream is calling as the kids finally doze off, ask yourself…Why do I want ice cream right now? Is there something else I can eat instead of ice cream? Is ice cream in any way going to help with my fitness goals? How much sugar is in ice cream? And the crucial part here…Answer your questions! Don’t just let them pop up and flitter away; take time to answer these inquiries, even if only in your head. This is a powerful step in behavior change, because as mentioned earlier…only YOU can convince yourself to do something, or not do it. If you are fortunate enough to have a spouse or friend that is a good listener, chances are they might be good at asking questions also. Invite the person along on your journey so he or she can ask you insightful questions that encourage change (*NOT Judgement!) in your habits. Stopping old habits and starting new habits are KEY to successful behavior change.
5. Readiness. For many professionals who work with behavior change clients, they must make motivational assessments, determining how ready the person is in making the changes discussed. The client will fall into 1 of 5 categories: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, and Maintenance. Without getting into category specifics, it is helpful for anyone who wants to make changes to assess their readiness before expending time, money and energy into a failed endeavor. For example, one time I had a client with goals of weight loss and improved eating habits. After a few questions on past diets and what he thought would be helpful changes for the future, he conceded that in reality, he was not going to change his habits. He likes food too much, and when he thinks about a burger, he has to have one…that’s not going to change. This client was in Precontemplation, because he did not see the long term benefits of a modified diet, and predicted that change will be too difficult to adhere to. Achieving goals will not come in this mindset. Instead, you must be prepared for the challenges change may bring, and then act on them. So before you start a new change, think about how much you believe this change is necessary, and identify possible barriers to making the change.
So no matter what changes you are looking for in your life, whether it’s health, marriage, stress, parenting, or even happiness, I hope a few of these insights will be of benefit to you. If you happen to be in the category of “My goal is not to set any goals,” then maybe you will be nudged over to the behavior change side, even if it’s just an inch. We could all use a behavior tune-up periodically. Besides, who doesn’t want to see an Improved You? Happy New Year!
*A note to add here, asking meaningful questions is very different than judgmental ones. Meaningful would be, How are you doing with the diet changes? What changes have you been able to make? What are you struggling with? Judgmental sounds like, Why are you eating that?!? I thought you said you wanted to lose weight? Why don’t you ask Susie Q. what she eats? She’s in good shape. Learning the difference in this type of communication is the key between being a guilt-driver or an encourager.
Archer, Shirley. “Meditation: Push-ups for the Brain.” https://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/meditation-push-ups-for-the-brain. December 11, 2012.
Muth, Natalie Digate. “The Secrets to Behavior Change, Practices and Principles.” https://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/the-secrets-to-behavior-change-principles-and-practice. May 7, 2015.
Newell, Jessie. “Motivation, Behavior Change, and Program Adherence.” https://www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/resource-center/exam-preparation-blog/3808/motivation-behavior-change-and-program-adherence. April 7, 2014.
Price, Derrick. “The 6-Step Approach for Creating New Habits.” http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/habit-based-coaching-finding-the-right-cues-to-reap-rewards. May 9. 2017.