How to Make Healthy AND Sustainable Life Changes

iForget willpower; make sustainable changes by planning ahead.

It's hard to make life change that stick -- just think of all your New Year's Resolutions. But there are ways to make sustainable changes.

Leading a healthier lifestyle doesn’t have to be as hard as you think. Many people fear they lack willpower. In fact, I don’t like the idea of willpower; I don’t think it really works. Rather, I believe that some of us make better choices by planning ahead. Let me share with you three straightforward steps to improve your environment, consciously making choices that have long-term health benefits.

Make Simple Changes

Start with simple changes in your immediate environment. Think simple ideas that you may or may not already unconsciously be doing: Put fruit on the kitchen counter and you’ll eat more fruit; use smaller plates and you’ll eat less; keep the TV out of the bedroom and you won’t fall asleep to the Late Show. Research proves it! As renowned researcher Brian Wansink and his colleagues demonstrated at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, small, obvious environmental changes have shocking and significant consequences. Their most recent research demonstrated that people who left cereal boxes out on their kitchen counters weighed on average 20 pounds more, so put away the cereal!

Set Realistic Goals

Trying to make radical changes can be difficult to maintain; setting unrealistic goals are just that — unrealistic. I don’t believe in the philosophy of “shoot for the stars and you will hit the moon” when it comes to behavioral change. Small changes, made every day, give you a feeling of accomplishment, and that will unconsciously drive up your chances of making a better choice next time.

Outsmart Yourself

Let’s talk about conscious choices so that you don’t have to rely on this so-called willpower. For example, if you struggle every morning with what to wear to work and then give up and wear the same old thing, lay out your clothes the night before. Tired by the end of the day and snapping at your children or your colleagues? Keep some nuts or other healthy snacks nearby to refuel and balance out your blood sugar in the afternoon.

You don’t need to make these small changes for long for them to add up to lasting change. Many behavioral researchers believe that if you make any change for 21 to 28 days in a row, it will stick. So, here are five easy places to start:

Swap out a salad plate for your dinner plate. Your plate will look full a lot sooner if it’s a smaller plate, and without realizing it, you’ll be eating less. We all tend to eat what’s available; research continues to bear this out in studies. But you and I don’t need a study to tell us that if we have a full plate of yummy food in front of us, we’ll probably eat it! So make your plate a bit smaller to naturally cut back on the amount of food.

Buy a pedometer. Set a baseline in your first week, and then increase it 10 percent every week till you get to 10,000 steps. The American Heart Association recommends that we all walk 10,000 steps a day; this is harder than you think for most of us. A pedometer can help you gauge how much you are actually walking.

Brush your teeth for at least a minute twice a day. Sing a song if you have to, skim your email on your phone, whatever it takes to stand there and brush your teeth. Oral health helps your overall health, not just your teeth.

Sleep at least seven hours a night. We all know where our power to make a good choice goes when we don’t get enough sleep.

Drop the processed snacks. Snacks are great and can help keep your blood sugar balanced in between meals, stabilizing your mood and energy levels. But snacks loaded in sugars, chemicals and other additives don’t actually help you at all.

Beth Ricanati, M.D. built her career bringing wellness into everyday life, especially for busy moms juggling life and children. Dr. Ricanati worked at Columbia Presbyterian's Center for Women's Health, and then at the Women's Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2008, she joined the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute to serve as the founding medical director of Lifestyle180, a groundbreaking lifestyle modification program to treat chronic diseases with nutrition, exercise and stress management. Now based in Southern California, recently she has written wellness content for and served as a consultant for medical projects and start-ups.

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