How to Make Lifestyle Changes

by mulberry

Making lifestyle changes is a challenge because it is based on altering habits which are long entrenched. My experience indicates that success depends upon your mental attitude.

Making Lifestyle Changes: The Right Attitude

I've written on topics that relate directly to making lifestyle changes to improve health and fitness. I've discussed my own efforts to control high cholesterol and to ward off osteoporosis. I've even written a bit about weight loss at the request of friends who want to know how I do it. Thus my writings have been focused on my personal experiences more so than on research or other specific academic qualifications.

Recently, I was asked by a friend to share a few thoughts about what I see as a successful attitude when it comes to making lifestyle changes. In my experience, it often seems that some of the mental attitudes that we carry into this process are what can hold us back.

No lifestyle change is simple or easy. Certainly I won't be able to cover all of the factors that can contribute to successfully making such changes and I don't want to oversimplify things, but I'll discuss a few key mental stumbling blocks that I think exist based on my experience.


Photo by The Trial
Photo by The Trial

You Are In Control

I had been working for 6 months to adjust my diet to reduce my cholesterol. When I went to have my lipid levels checked, I discovered that I had been successful. All of my levels, HDL, Triglycerides, LDL, and Total Cholesterol were all right where they should be. It was a wonderful feeling. I remember experiencing the sensation that I was in control. I was the master of my body. I had the power to change things.

Now granted, there are things that we can't control, but often we can. Most physicians that I've talked to throughout my healthcare career agree that we have much more control over our health and aging than what we realize or are willing to accept responsibility for controlling.

I can't imagine making a change in my health or any other part of my life, if I don't first accept that I can control it. Entering into the process saying, "I can't do this" or "this won't work" assures failure. Many people have failed at diets and therefore assume they can't lose weight, many people feel like they are depriving themselves already and therefore, can do no more.

This is an attitude that is counterproductive to any lifestyle change. The first step in my eyes then is to accept the responsibility, to accept that you can change something, and you have the power to do so.

You Really Can't Have It All

We all know this one, but it takes a bit of introspection to realize how hard we fight it.

I've had friends in the past who complain about being unable to lose weight or cut their cholesterol but talk about how they really don't want to have to cut back on certain foods or take up strenuous exercise. They don't like it. In their words, life isn't worth it if they have to skip eating things they love or do things they dread.

I'll talk about preferences and the need to enjoy things in a bit, but for now I think another key attitude for successfully making a lifestyle change is that you recognize the change as a priority and accept that some things will have to be given up. For instance, if you want to lose weight or reduce your cholesterol, you need to excercise more and eat less or eat differently. No excuses. Find a way to do it that works for you. If you refuse to do one of these two things, it won't happen. Period. If you insist on eating the same way and living the same way, you are prioritizing something else and you won't be successful in making the change or achieving the goal you want.

If a particular lifestyle change is your priority, then you will have to accept that other, more minor things may have to be sacrificed. As the title says, you really can't have it all. You can't eat ice cream, hamburgers, and french fries every day and achieve a goal to lose weight or lower your cholesterol. So you have to decide which is your priority.

These changes may have to be phased in over time so that you aren't overwhelmed. But these habits or lifestyles may well be the crux of the problem to begin with, so change they must. Any change often involves either giving some things up or being uncomfortable for a while.

Planning To Enjoy the Change

For many changes, and weight loss is the perfect example, we assume all of the work will be painful and involve deprivation or a loss of all of the things we love. Although recognizing that you will have to change and give some things up is important, I'm not sure change is only about giving things up. Remember, the word is change, not loss.

I think the best attitude is that you can, and will, identify options that work for you; you can enjoy this change.

I love high fat foods, rich, creamy sauces, pungent cheeses, and so forth. To cut my cholesterol I had to change. Now instead of indulging daily, I do so once a week. Just as important, I increased some of my lower fat food options into my meals. If I were writing down a list of my favorite foods and dishes, some of these lower fat options would have been on the list all along. Now I just eat them more frequently and have worked to discover new ones. I still eat what I like, I just adjusted the balance and added some new things I've discovered.

If I get stuck on the idea of all those rich, creamy sauces I'm giving up, then I'll lose motivation. If I focus more on enjoying them infrequently and enjoying other healthier food options, then I stand a better chance at succeeding.

I also avoid eating things that may be low fat but also happen to be things I detest. Why torture myself? I hate skim milk, so I don't drink it. If I hate what I'm doing, there's no way I'll be able to continue doing it long term, so why set myself up for failure? We need to enjoy things, it's just that they may be different things than we're enjoying right now.

I think the same goes for people who hate exercise. Personally, if I had to go to a gym everyday I would fail. But since I enjoy walking, that's something I can do everyday. And, since my attitude is that it must be a habit that I make a priority, I have no trouble making sure I do it every single day. If your attitude is that you will find alternatives that you find enjoyable or at least acceptable, then you will find long term success.

Accept Forever

Dieting takes a certain attitude. You buckle down, you follow some rules, you lose weight, you celebrate and move on, only to find you regain the weight. Same with lowering your cholesterol. You change, you get your levels where you want them, you celebrate, and 6 months later they are right back where they started.

To really make a lifestyle change, you should probably start off with the attitude that this is forever. It is not like cramming for a test. It is not like achieving most goals in life where you work like a dog, reach a goal, and then move on. No, this is a life sentence.

You shouldn't despair though, once you've developed these new habits, they will be easier to stick with, and hopefully, you'll even enjoy most of them.

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Imperfection is Acceptable

When I set out to cut my cholesterol, I had an attitude that said, take it one step at a time. Every food choice I made mattered but if I ate something high fat, I didn't feel like I had failed. I just knew my next few choices needed to be good. I didn't fall off the wagon so to speak, just because my husband enticed me into eating a doughnut one morning. At the next meal, I could make a fresh start and better choice.

I know that success happens in the long term. I know that success is cumulative. I know that success doesn't mean all or nothing in many cases. Accepting something less than perfect generally works. It's the big picture that counts, and beating yourself up over small failures takes away from the hundreds of successes you experience along the road.

Recognize the Power of Influence

Do you know the biggest barrier I faced when I tried to lower my saturated fat intake?  It wasn't the luscious foods and delectable "goodies". It wasn't my stomach or a weak will. No. It was the people who loved me. My mother who offered me bad food options several times an hour. A husband who constantly asked me if I wasn't "going overboard", and so forth.

In some cases, you may need to kick some friends out of your social circle or hold them at arms length. However, hopefully that isn't often a necessary step for you to get where you want to go. For me, I had to be consistent in how I refused, but I also had to set up some boundaries. 

I actually had to have a "sit down" with my mother.  The analogy that finally got through to her was that of being an alcoholic.  I told her, "If I were an alcoholic, would you be pushing a beer at me, and telling me that having a 6 pack would be ok?" 

If that hadn't worked, I decided I was going to invest in a pack of cigarettes to shove at her (an ex-smoker) each time she shoved a doughnut at me. Luckily, I didn't have to take that next step!

The end point need to get those around you on board with your lifestyle change.  They need to understand it's importance and how they can help, or at least not deter you in meeting your goal. Otherwise, your battle will be sabotaged frequently and your chance at success will be drastically cut. Certainly, on the flip side, if you have a partner in your effort, you should find your burden to be significantly lighter. A spouse or good friend who shares your committment to eat lighter, to incorporate exercise into your daily routine, or some other shared goal is an optimal situation.

In the absence of such a partnership, participating in other groups that support your efforts could be useful as well. Weight loss support groups are just one example but online groups and forums which focus on the appropriate topics might even prove beneficial as well.  

Any significant lifestyle change requires a conscious committment and sustained effort, but often once the pattern is set, the new lifestyle can be as effortless as your previous pattern. My experience indicates that some of the tips above may be crucial first steps as you set out to make those changes.

Updated: 03/02/2012, mulberry
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Tolovaj on 05/14/2012

Some very useful points here. We all start our journeys with first steps and we all have to think at least a little about companions on our journeys. I like the investment in a pack o cigarettes best:)

katiem2 on 04/04/2012

I love it, how wonderful and affirming. I love change, I feel if I'm not changing I'm not becoming a better person, learning or growing. I appreciate your tips on how to make life style changes, it's inspired me to be true to my nature and change!

terrilorah on 03/21/2012

This is so dead on true! I work in a nursing home and when you see what bad choices do to some people, it does make you think a bit and make you want to change your bad choices. I seem to be working on it a lot since hitting 50. Thanks for a great article, which reminds me to get out there and walk instead of sitting here :)

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