An Ounce of Prevention MD – Behavior Change 101


The New Year is finally here, and this time you just know you’re going to start that diet and exercise routine you promised yourself!  You really want to do it, and have the diet picked out and the gym membership paid for.  The last 28 years were just flukes- this time you mean it!

We all have good intentions, and know what we should do.  The hard part is getting ourselves to do it.  Less than 25% of people stick with their New Year’s goals after only 30 days!  That’s pretty sad. Why is it so hard to stick to something that we know is good for us???

It’s evolution at work.  Our brains constantly need a supply of energy, so our bodies are designed to obtain and conserve as much energy as possible.  Ten thousand years ago, when food was scarce, we wanted to eat and store as much fuel as we could when it was available, and not expend energy unless it was absolutely necessary.  Those signals still exist; our bodies tell us to eat as much as we can and not move unless we have to in order to manage our fuel reserves. But today food is plentiful and the need to move is not.  You can sit on your couch and order burritos from GrubHub every day for the next ten years if you want. But that doesn’t make for much of a life!

Cartoon of a potato sitting on a couch with a tv remote
Don’t let this be you!

So how do you undo thousands of years of evolution?  Well, nothing works perfectly, but there a few “brain hacks” that can work for a lot of people.

First, and most importantly, you have to want to make the change.  You might know exercise is good for you, or you know you should lose weight, or your doctor told you to stop eating cheddar Bugles before bed, but if you don’t REALLY want to do it, it will never happen.  Change first and foremost needs to come from you. So dig down deep and find out if you really want to make a change. If you’re comfortable with the way things are, and not truly committed, you’ll just get frustrated and likely not try again in the future.

OK- so let’s say you’re committed, and ready to make a change.  The next step is to replace your bad habit with a manageable alternative.  We’re not good at depriving ourselves of something we want, but we can easily accept a substitution.  For example, have an apple in the morning instead of a muffin. You can replace a soda with a seltzer, coffee, or tea.  Mashed cauliflower is a great substitute for mashed potatoes. A ten-minute walk is a great substitute for sitting on the couch, and much easier to accomplish than going to the gym for an hour.  Keep it simple and singular– only try one small change at a time.  Most of the time diet plans and gym memberships don’t last because they require big, sudden changes that we can’t sustain.  But small, daily changes are much easier to continue for the long term.

Another way to stick to your resolution is to shout it to the world.  Write your commitment down in multiple places. Schedule it in your phone or calendar.  Tell your spouse, your kids, your neighbors, and your mailman what your commitment is. Writing your commitment down creates a sort of “written contract” with yourself, which makes adherence more likely.  Telling others creates peer pressure, which we all know from middle school is an effective motivator, and likely will get your inner circle to support you and help you with your actions.

Finally, ask yourself the “why” question.  Why do you want to improve your habits? Is it to look better?  Do you want more energy? Do you want to be happier? Do you want lower insurance premiums?   Being “healthy” is somewhat nebulous and usually not as motivating as something more concrete.  So ask yourself “why”, and then hold the answer out in front of you like a carrot (eg. if I exercise today, I’ll finally be able to keep up with my nephew on our next family hike).

And try to keep positive.  Don’t let fear, guilt, judgment or negative thinking drive your motivation, because these are not lasting incentives.

It’s simple, but not easy.  If it was easy, we’d all be thin and healthy, and I would be out of a job.

So my challenge for you today is to decide if you’re ready to commit to a change, then pick ONE SIMPLE CHANGE that you can make on a daily basis, and plan how you’re going to make it happen.  We’re all capable of doing it, but only if we’re truly committed. Good luck, and good health!

L Kenneth Zweig, M.D.

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