By Dr. Kelly McGrath
This past fall, I had a welcome phone call with an old great friend from my childhood. We had a lot to catch up on. I am really proud of him for many reasons but particularly in that a few years ago he achieved his lifetime career goal that he had been working on for decades. He is now leading a large organization and is recognized widely in his field. Despite all the good news in our conversation, he expresses concern that due to all the work demands and pressure, he was no longer exercising and had gained about 40 pounds of excess weight. Demands of his working career had squeezed out some of the most important things for his overall health. This is a guy who climbed the some of the highest peaks in the northern and southern hemispheres who now was short of breath just walking up the stairs.
Our conversation shifted a bit as we discussed strategies to regain fitness despite his demanding career. His strategy to achieve that is not much different than it is for any of us when we try to make changes to adopt healthy habits.
First of all, we all need a compelling reason or purpose to make a change. Certainly, he could have a goal to lose those 40 extra pounds but the reason why he would want to do that is really the core motivation to make the changes successfully. He is highly motivated to be healthy to be able to enjoy the outdoor activities as he did when he was younger. He wants to spend time in the outdoors and not spending time seeing doctors like me. I cannot blame him. I feel the same. If you are thinking about making changes for healthy habits, try to focus on the fundamental motivating factor which will help you when you are having inevitable challenges in making change.
The next thing to focus on is to pick a small goal even if it seems way too small to make a difference. A goal that we can easily achieve in the next day or two sets us on the journey to achieve those longer more powerful goals. My friend had achieved a lot in his career by small incremental changes. Achieving fitness and healthy changes is much the same way. One step at a time is needed.
We also talked about the importance of using “friction” to his benefit. What I mean by this is to reduce the difficulty to do the healthy habits while increasing the difficulty to do the unhealthy habits. An example could be to set out your workout clothes the night before if you intend to work out. It also could be to not buy the ice cream that is so tempting when it is in your freezer but not as tempting if you had to travel to the store when you had the impulse to feast on it. Reducing even small barriers to do positive habits and slightly increasing barriers for unhealthy habits can have a huge impact over time.
One of the other important ingredients for making positive change is to embrace self-forgiveness. Implementing healthy habits can be challenging. If you set one of those small goals and don’t achieve it, it is important to forgive yourself. What is most important is that you make adjustments so that you will be successful in the future and to try again. My friend and I exchanged several texts back and forth as he missed plans to walk or use his exercise equipment. I reminded him to forgive himself, adjust and try again. Unless you like having a drill sergeant yelling at you in your head, forgiving yourself and keep trying is much more effective.
The other “trick” to use in adopting healthy habits or getting rid of unhealthy habits is to use the “buddy system”. Having a friend to go on a walk with, workout with or to gently hold us accountable can make a big difference. Friends can also remind us of the core purpose that motivates has to make a change. For my friend, it was our text messages back and forth that helped.
I am delighted to report that my friend is eating better and doing some exercise most days despite his busy career. I look forward to outdoor adventures together in the future that are more likely now that he is caring for himself. Like climbing a mountain or building his career, it will take a life long journey made up of small daily steps.
We only get one body in life so it makes sense to take care of it. Life can get busy and crazy to easily knock us off our good habits to care for ourselves. Use all the tricks you can to prosper with a healthy lifestyle.