Making a healthy lifestyle change can be quite challenging, even if you have attempted to undertake such a change before. Many of us mortal humans have tried and failed on countless occasions to make these seemingly simple adjustments in our daily or weekly routines. The problem is that most of us have no idea what we are getting into when we make these commitments to ourselves. After all, how difficult could it be to set aside an extra thirty minutes a day to fit in some exercise or drink an additional 20 ounces of water per day? Are you lazy or do you just lack will power?
Chances are it’s none of the above. You can’t simply pass this one off as a character flaw. The more likely explanation is that your brain doesn’t work the way you thought it did. This is not a bad thing. It’s just something you need to be aware of. After all, you are going up against years of behavior and habit. An individual does not become overweight or arthritic or diabetic overnight. Maybe you should not expect to be able to change it all in a day or a week, or even a month. While you have within yourself the ability to make these changes, whether you actually take the actions necessary to bring about these changes is a matter of how well you know yourself. Here are six essential steps to learning more about what makes you tick and how to make a healthy lifestyle change.
1. Identify Your Priorities and Commitments
Have you ever considered the fact that your behaviors and habits are determined by your priorities? Doesn’t it make sense then that if you change your priorities your behavior will also change? The problem with this scenario is that changing your priorities is much more difficult than changing your behavior and attempting to do one without the other is rarely successful. If we focus on the behavior without determining the priorities, the behavior will always revert back.
The first thing to do is to identify your priorities. This is really a matter of making a list of what is important to you (e.g., family, work, health, etc.) and then organizing these things in order of importance. Typically, the things you spend the most time doing are the things that are most important to you. For instance, do you spend more time each week reading novels or watching T.V. than you do exercising or preparing healthy meals for yourself. At one time or another, most of us have probably claimed, “I simply do not have time to exercise” or “I can’t afford to eat that healthy”. These are not matters of time or money. They are matters of priorities. These priorities are not right or wrong, good or bad. They are just your priorities. So don’t fall into the self-judgment trap. That is a sure-fire way to fail at achieving your goal before you even begin to try.
At least now having done this little exercise, you are more aware of what your priorities have been then you were before. If this causes you to want to change your priorities, this is an important step toward making a healthy lifestyle change. Remember, if we can change the priorities the behavior will follow. But don’t make any changes until you consider the remaining steps and understand what is involved in this process.
People often say, “My problem is not priorities, it is lack of commitment.” So what’s the difference? Without getting into semantics, we come back to the real question: Are you spending the most time on the things that are most important to you? If you doubt that your behavior is not reflecting your priorities and instead feel that you simply lack commitment, then ask yourself why you think you are more committed to something that is not so important to you. Does that make sense?
2. Become Aware of Your Belief Systems
Now that you are more aware of your priorities, consider this. An individual’s priorities are determined by his belief system, and that belief system is based on past experiences and conscious choice. Here is an example. We have been told for years that eating eggs and butter will raise our cholesterol and lead to heart disease. We believed this because our doctors and the media told us it was so. From the moment we chose to believe it we changed our behavior and avoided eating eggs and butter. However, we are now being told that, based on current scientific research, dietary cholesterol from eggs and butter has very little, if any, impact on cholesterol levels in the blood, and that the bigger dietary culprits in elevated blood cholesterol levels are trans fats, refined sugars and processed carbohydrates.
The question of which studies or positions you will follow does not necessarily depend on which ones are correct. It depends more on which ones make the most sense to you — which ones you believe. This is often the most difficult concept to grasp because it goes against everything we have been taught with regard to nutrition and health. We have been taught to believe that there is a right way and a wrong way and these rules apply to everyone. I am sure you can think of many instances when you did something despite your knowledge that it was wrong.
Another way to look at this is to realize that the past does not equal the present or the future. If you look at the sources of your beliefs or behaviors, you will realize that most of them exist because of an experience you had or lesson you learned in the past. If you realize that this belief or behavior is holding you back today, you must ask yourself why you continue to believe or behave in this manner. This belief or behavior may have served you well then in that prior situation. But is it serving you well today? And do you think it will serve you well in the future?
The more aware you are of what you really believe in, the more likely you are to make the choices and behave in the manner that suits your best interests. If you want your lifestyle to change then you must be ready to change your self-image.
3. Create an Individualized Strategy
The standardized one-size-fits-all approach is ineffective and may even be hazardous to your health. We are all individuals and, as such, are as different on the inside as we are on the outside. As human beings, we are each biochemically and physiologically unique. This is precisely why no single diet or exercise program works for everyone. If there was such a program, we would all be on it and there wouldn’t be several completely different approaches represented on the New York Times best-sellers list every week.
Your goal should be to determine which method or approach will work best for you, not what has worked for someone else. This depends as much on your biochemical and physiological individuality as it does on your ability and willingness to adhere to a new exercise program or diet plan. It has been my experience that an individual will not make any such lifestyle change unless it feels right or makes sense to the individual. The largest institutions in the world – religions – are based on belief. If you practice any one particular religion you chose that religion because, based on all of the information available to you, it made the most sense to you or because it felt right in your heart. James Allen said: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so shall he be.”
Once you acknowledge and appreciate the need for an individualized strategy, how do you actually create one? I recommend you find a qualified professional within the area of expertise appropriate for your goal. If you want to focus on improving your eating habits, find a certified nutritional consultant. If you want to begin or change your exercise program, find a certified fitness trainer. If you need an overall lifestyle change, you may need a lifestyle coach or engage the services of more than one consultant. In any case, you should seek the guidance of a trained professional who will not simply give you a standardized or one-size-fits-all approach. You need someone who will take your health history and current lifestyle into consideration before helping you to develop a personalized approach.
4. Tap Into Your Desire/Motivation
Now that we know you will not likely take any actions that go against your belief system, what do you do about it? If your belief system is not giving you the results you desire, you must change your belief system. This is not an easy task. It requires a willingness and openness to change. Even if you seek the advice of a health professional, it may be that professional’s job to give you all of the information and guidance necessary to help you to change, but it is ultimately your responsibility to implement the change. You must have the desire to change.
Anyone who has ever quit smoking will tell you that they did not quit until they wanted to quit, until they had the desire to quit. Even when they acknowledged that smoking was bad for them or their friends and loved ones begged them to quit it was not enough. They had to reach a point where they wanted better health for themselves and acceptance from their friends and loved ones. They had to desire these things more than the pleasure they got from smoking. How badly do you want to change? What does it mean to you?
Yet another way to phrase this question is, “What is your WHY?” If you know your “Why”, you know your purpose and will always have that to refocus on whenever you become distracted or unmotivated.
5. Visualize Your Success
One of the powerful ways to ensure your success is to visualize a day in your life when you have attained your goal. Imagine yourself on a day sometime in the near future when you are healthier and happier because you have changed your lifestyle. Imagine that you have reached your ideal weight, or you are no longer ashamed of your body, or you have reached your desired level of strength, energy and endurance. Get a clear picture in your mind of yourself going about your new daily routine. Imagine it as if it was happening right at this moment. Check in with your senses. How does it feel? How does it smell? How does it look and sound? Enjoy the experience of a healthier lifestyle – of success. Was it worth the commitment you made to yourself? Are you happy? That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Numerous studies have shown that visualization is an extremely effective tool that is used by professional athletes, celebrities, millionaires, and successful people in all walks of life. Perhaps it is so effective because it taps into the emotional aspect of your determination. Perhaps visualization is a way of implanting your success within your unconscious mind. Carl Jung said that our unconscious mind communicates with our conscious mind through pictures or images, not through words. Once you have created that picture in mind it is easy to bring it back up whenever you want or need to see it again. It serves as your motivation, your inspiration. If you can see something, then you can believe it and you can achieve it.
So find yourself a quiet place where you go without being distracted and get that picture of success in your mind. And then live every day as if you have already succeeded. This will change your attitude and it will change your life.
6. Make the Decision – Make the Commitment
Probably the most overlooked and most difficult step in making a change is making the decision to change. Everyone has within himself the power to change. While it is true that in light of the variety of circumstances and life situations in which we find ourselves it is more difficult for some people to change than it is for others, we all have the power to change. Many times, the difference between someone who succeeds and someone who does not is that the successful person made the decision to succeed. You can have the best of intentions and make all of the plans necessary to make a change, but until you actually decide to take action nothing will ever come of those intentions and plans.
An important thing to keep in mind concerning any life-changing decision is that it should be viewed as a commitment. A decision stated in language such as, “I think I can do that”, or “I’ll try to do this” is not really a decision at all. This is you thinking about making a decision. And if you have always viewed yourself as an “indecisive” person, remember what we discussed in step number 2 — the past does not equal the present or the future. If you want your lifestyle to change, then you must change your self-image. Get serious about your commitment to yourself. You can waiver all you want beforehand, but when you have finally made the decision, you must actually decide that you will attain your goal and nothing will stand in your way. It’s a matter of choice.
The magical thing about a true commitment is that once you actually make the decision, attaining your goal suddenly becomes a much more likely result. It’s what we all want, and we can have it if we really, truly want it. It’s a matter of choice.
Priorities… Commitment… Awareness of your belief system… An individualized strategy… And the desire to make it all happen. These are the keys to making a healthy lifestyle change, or any change for that matter. Just make the decision and watch it happen! It’s what we all want, and we can have it if we really, truly want it. It’s a matter of choice.
– Michael A. Sallustio is a Lifestyle Consultant and co-owner of The Lifestyle Center of Annapolis in Annapolis, Maryland. Michael is also certified as a Personal Fitness Trainer, Medical Exercise Specialist, and Nutritional Consultant.