by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
Let’s say you’re at a point in your wellness journey where you are gradually and proudly hitting critical milestones: You can briskly walk two miles without speed-dialing 911; you can zip up pants and jackets all the way (it’s no longer mission impossible!); buttons are buttoning, not bulging; you take a healthy lunch to work instead of munching a mountain of pizza slices.
There’s a thrill and excitement associated with each new experience. You look in the mirror and smile. You hop into great-looking clothes. You feel high with energy to live your dreams. You can’t wait for the next rush of dopamine as you navigate another hurdle and triumph once again.
This is all terrific. The next challenge is to maintain these new behaviors and accomplishments. And there’s the rub: You have to keep this going for the long term. Maintenance is the process of preserving, carrying on, and perpetuating your optimal health and wellness. The antonym for maintenance is neglect. To maintain, you ditch self-abandonment.
Achieving and maintaining that higher state of being are two different processes. People gear up for achievement, but are perplexed by maintenance. You see expensive, colorful, motivational Madison Avenue–level ads for starting the journey. But there aren’t any for long-term maintenance because the initial thrill is gone. Reaching your big goal(s) is one experience. Maintaining your achievement requires a transition to a whole new mental focus—the practice of rituals and behaviors that support lifelong sustainable success.
Here are 3 secrets to success in maintaining your newfound wellness:
1. Celebrate, commit, and cement. It’s imperative to celebrate milestones, and then to keep committing to staying the course in order to cement into place your new level of wellness. There are two critical times when you must practice these three c’s:
- The first occurs while you are on the road to achieving your big goal. As you reach each milestone, take a moment to celebrate and enjoy how good it feels and your sense of pride. Once the rush of success has passed, get solidly determined to hold onto that success. This means you’re committing to the daily practice of the new behaviors that helped you reach this milestone. Beware any shortcut schemes to achieving any wellness goal because cutting corners robs you of the opportunity and time it takes to practice and hone your behavior. Get real and acknowledge you’ll sometimes be slippin’ and slidin’ in your daily practices, but you’ll still be progressing over time.
- The second critical time to remember the three c’s is when you’ve finally achieved all or most of your overall goal. Now, if you’ve been practicing your new behaviors all along, maintaining your big goal becomes much easier to do. Recommit for the long run.
2. Make more excitement. I don’t know about you, but maintenance is nowhere near as exciting as embarking on a journey. In any new beginning, there’s constant elation and bursts of joy with each success. You feel pride in your progress. You’re surrounded by novelty as you discover you can walk/run that 5K, that you need a smaller size, that you feel more confident at work, and that your doctor is pleased with your normalized blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol.
But what happens once you’ve reached your pinnacle of success? You wake up the next morning and…you’ve got to keep it going, minus all of the novelty. You’re there. But what does that mean? Simply said, in order to stay there, you have to do the work to maintain your success.
You do your exercise, shop for and cook healthy foods, and you practice stress management. On the first go-around, it’s novel and engaging. Keeping it going day after day means accepting these lifestyle behaviors as integral to your survival and absolutely nonnegotiable. They have to become a piece of you, transitioning from conscious to subconscious.
So to fan the fires of long-term commitment, create new forms of excitement. Build upon your successes. OK, you’ve been dutifully going to the gym and performing the same exercises. How about changing it up and constantly challenging yourself? Get a fitness professional to guide you. Push your own envelope. Tired of the same foods? Experiment with spices, herbs, ethnic blends, and new cooking techniques. Tired of your meditation? Try a new one. Add new mind-body techniques to your repertoire. Keep maintenance exciting by looking for ways to refine, hone, and expand on your new foundation for healthy living.
3. Stay vigilant. “I’m there!” you cry out as you hit your goal. With that achievement, it’s easy to relax the determination, passion, focus, and discipline it took to reach that goal in the first place. “Now I’ve arrived. I can stop working at it!” Au contraire. The same behaviors that supported your successful attainment of your goal are the foundation for your continued success. If you loosen up and stop paying attention, your old self-destructive behaviors are just laying in wait. This doesn’t mean you should be overly obsessive. It simply means you maintain a baseline amount of self-protective vigilance. Try not to drop your guard. Yes, you’ve done well to achieve your big goal. The reality is that to keep savoring that success, you have to stay mindful, in the present, and accountable for your behaviors.
It’s like learning how to drive a car. In the beginning you are hypervigilant, for fear of having an accident. After years of driving, there’s no more sitting on the edge of the driver’s seat, death grip on the steering wheel. You’re more relaxed and confident—but you never drop your vigilance.
When I think about maintenance, I cannot help but recall with a mile-wide smile, one of the most memorable quotes from Nora Ephron’s book I Feel Bad about My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman: “Maintenance is what you have to do just so you can walk out the door knowing that if you go to the market and bump into a guy who once rejected you, you won’t have to hide behind a stack of canned food.”
Nora is saying that there’s just a minimum amount of maintenance you need in order to stay proud and successful. You don’t have to get crazy and slip into perfectionism. Instead, just do what you have to do mentally, nutritionally, and physically to maintain that wonderful new wellness milestone. And you’ll never need to hide behind stacks of canned food.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.