by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
It’s the beginning of a new year, and you know the drill: Across the nation, so many of you have done the annual end-of-year ritual of critical self-examination followed by the careful crafting of lofty health goals you resolve to achieve in 2015. Fueled by dogged determination, “resoluters” flock to health clubs, hammer through 6 a.m. spin classes, spend thousands of dollars on home gym equipment, join an assortment of nutrition and healthy cooking websites, and download the latest lifestyle apps and trackers. With laser focus, you’re ready to change your life.
And then, within four weeks, it all falls apart. Sound familiar?
Here’s a new way to approach your New Year’s commitment to better health and wellness. Yes, you should be filled with positivity and determination as you create a plan for better mental, nutritional, and physical fitness—but with a twist. This year, instead of just envisioning the rewards you’ll reap from your efforts, I want you to also include a list of the typical obstacles you know derail you. Then generate a host of options for managing each one.
It’s very common for people to feel energized and positive as they set out to change their behavior. Many feel high on life, experiencing what some health and fitness professionals refer to as the “honeymoon” period of the change cycle. This blissful time abruptly ends once some brush with a tough reality occurs. You get a new boss who’s the poster child for overcontrolling and micromanaging. Your kid runs into trouble at school. One of your parents falls and breaks a hip. You get diagnosed with a medical condition. Scientists have discovered that this inability to adapt and adjust your self-care habits to life’s stresses is the real reason the majority of people fall off the wagon, defaulting to their old behavior and worse.
The solution, then, is to be prepared not just for the best, but also for the worst that life can toss our way. Here are simple steps you can take to make a new game plan to achieve and maintain your healthier habits throughout the year:
1. Become a realistic optimist: Balance your optimism with realism. Stay grounded in the reality that things don’t always turn out the way we want them to. Recall the Yiddish proverb “Man plans, God laughs.” So, as you press forward with your mind committed to practicing better self-care, always keep in mind that at any point in time, something can happen to throw you off track. Be mentally prepared for this, and fight the urge to cave and give up.
2. Enroll in YOU 101: In order to be able to imagine obstacles that are likely to challenge your best intentions, you need to know yourself. Take a moment right now to grab a pen and some paper. Now write down every possible healthy lifestyle impediment you can imagine based upon your own unique daily life. Think of every person, place, and thing that is a potential speed bump in your roadway to health and wellness. And don’t forget to include you! That means you’re aware of your more self-destructive habits—procrastination, tardiness, lack of focus, poor organization. Strive to achieve an “A” in YOU 101 by being absolutely honest with yourself. This will prove to be immensely helpful as you proceed to create realistic expectations and optional plans when life’s stresses emerge.
3. Adjust your expectations: As I stated in Fight Fat after Forty, “The greatest stresses of life come from unmet expectations.” People are prone to generate expectations that are not rooted in the realities of everyday life. In addition, you really cannot control anything in your life except your own thought and actions. I encourage you to use the word “hope” instead of “expect” when you’re thinking thoughts like “I hope my gym workout goes well,” “I hope my walking buddy is on time tomorrow,” “I hope my family supports my healthy habits.” By using “hope,” you allow for a critical amount of wiggle room for occasions when life throws you a curve ball. This way, you’re less stressed and disappointed. You can roll with the punches and keep on track.
4. Come armed with Plan Bs and Cs: As poet Robert Frost once noted, “The best way out is always through.” The way to get through a tough situation is to have alternative plans to navigate the obstruction. Make a game of visualizing all sorts of obstacles to your achievement of healthier habits. Challenges can come from weather, work, accidents, and even the guy on the treadmill who overstays his 30-minute limit. Think about what you’ll do. Be really creative. Act it out in your mind. Keep reminding yourself that the goal is to stay on track.
5. Practice self-compassion: Speaking of reality, let’s get real. Sometimes life really slams you and you do have to make major modifications to your lifestyle habits. Say to yourself, “This is a tough time and I’m not going to be able to do my normal routines.” Be kind and compassionate and forgiving with yourself. I recommend that you don’t completely abandon your self-care. Just do the best you can under the circumstances and keep planning to get back to your normal routines as soon as you can.
The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” And to this wisdom I add that to truly succeed your wellness plan must always include achievable goals coupled with a good measure of reality. Now, onward with making your dreams come true!
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.