How to Make Healthy Lifestyle Changes That Last

Most people are aware that making healthy lifestyle changes would be good for their long term well-being, yet doing so can feel daunting for many. According to an article in US News and World Report, about 80% of people will fail at their New Year’s Resolutions, and many by the middle of February.

If you are feeling stuck trying to make changes, don’t dismay! First, know that you are in good company and it can take lots of stops and starts, steps back as well as steps forward, to make wished for changes. Second, consider the following steps below to shift how you might be approaching change and notice if this makes a difference.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Psychologist Dr. Robert Brooks, writing on the topic of lifestyle medicine, emphasizes the importance of setting very realistic, specific, small, concrete, and measurable short-term and long-term goals. For example, he shares an example of a person who might first commit to walking a half mile a number of times a week and gradually increase this over the course of the next month or two, so that they work in increments toward their ultimate goal of walking three miles, five days a week. Identifying realistic, measurable, short and long term goals can make it more likely that people will follow through.

From my clinical and personal experience, I have experienced that the less people leave things to chance, the more likely they are to succeed. If you are going to walk a half mile tomorrow, choose what time of day you are going, put it on your calendar, set a reminder, and have your walking clothes picked out and laid out beside your bed the night before.

If you are going to increase your intake of vegetables at lunch, go grocery shopping on the weekend, plan out your lunches for the week, and pack your lunch the night before. Have already cut up veggies and healthy dip in the fridge to snack on for when you are hungry, rather than trusting that you’ll take the time to do this when a hunger urge sets in. In other words, be proactive and intentional.

2. Once people have specific goals in mind (see above) Dr. Brooks highlights the importance of coming up with a plan to handle inevitable setbacks. He suggests reflecting on potential obstacles from the very beginning and building in a way to handle negative mindsets and self-defeating thoughts and behaviors before they even occur. One benefit of doing this, Dr. Brooks suggests, is that it can lead to implementing proactive behaviors (for example, committing to exercise with a friend if you know you might give in to “not feeling like it” otherwise).

But another benefit of planning for setbacks, Dr. Brooks describes, is being able to rehearse responses to negative mind-sets by asking yourself what you might be likely to tell yourself if you encounter an obstacle, how would this affect your subsequent behavior, and how might you change the message you say to yourself to have a more positive outcome?

In my clinical experience, having a plan to handle setbacks is one of the most important factors in making lasting changes. I have observed that most people start off with good intentions but get derailed once they have a setback, and it can become hard to pick back up and move forward. Having a script for how you will handle this (write it down in advance!) can be essential for moving forward.

For example: When I have a day where I don’t follow through with my goals, I’m going to remind myself of the positive steps that I’ve already taken and that it is normal and human to slip backwards. In fact, I will remind myself that doing so is a natural consequence of growth, and forward and backward steps are part of the same path. I will also call my friend who always offers me an encouraging voice, and I will commit to doing one small positive thing for myself today.

3. Judson Brewer’s research on how mindfulness helps to break unhelpful habit loops offers powerful insight into changing behaviors. Having studied such addictive behaviors as smoking and overeating, he found that when people become very curious about their behaviors and what they get from their actions, observing their experience with a willingness to turn toward it and notice body sensations moment to moment, they naturally discover information that guides them toward making healthier and ultimately more rewarding choices.

For example, the smoker who truly pays attention to the experience of smoking may discover that smoking tastes disgusting, and thus become disenchanted with it. The person driven by food cravings might discover that such cravings are made up of body sensations that come and go and are in any given moment, actually manageable.

When we learn to pay attention to our unhealthy behaviors with mindful awareness, we step out of automatic pilot and give our brains accurate and up to date information about what is and is not actually rewarding, and this can help to break old habit loops.

4. Be wary of the diet you feed yourself (and I’m not talking about a diet of food). I’m talking about paying attention to your diet of thoughts. While I touched upon this in point #2, it bears further attention. It is common for people to be quite hard on themselves and harshly criticize themselves when they fall short of their goals (e.g., what’s wrong with me, I’m so stupid, I can’t do anything right). In fact, many people believe that self-criticism may be necessary to motivate and push themselves toward their goals. In fact, the opposite is true. As health psychologist Kelly McGonigal writes in her book The Willpower Instinct, self-criticism is associated with lower motivation, less self-control, and a sense of feeling stuck and being inhibited from taking positive actions.  

So what is the antidote  Feed ourselves a healthier diet of thoughts, especially ones that are self-compassionate. Self-compassion may feel foreign to many people, but it is the voice of care, kindness, understanding and encouragement that you would offer to a good friend — but instead offered to yourself. It might sound something like this: I can see I’ve fallen back into some old patterns today and I’m feeling disappointed. That happens to all of us sometimes. But I’ve had plenty of days where I’ve made healthful choices. I already know how to do this — I’ve just got to stick with it and be willing to work through setbacks along the way. At least I know I’m human.

5. Move towards your goals from a place of “already full” rather than from not good enough, less than, striving or stress. Take some time to appreciate what you are already doing to take care of yourself.  Write down and reflect on things you have achieved in your life that you feel proud of, or things you did that took courage. Note what inner strengths you drew on to help you get there (which may be able to help you with future changes). Also reflect on things you appreciate about yourself and your life, and things you are grateful for. It is OK to work to improve things in your life, but if you come from a place of already enough you will be able to move toward your goals with greater ease.

6. If you are having difficulty making healthy lifestyle changes, don’t abandon hope. Instead, seek social support and connection! In fact, besides the encouragement and sense of shared common humanity one can get from others, there is another surprising benefit. In a meta-analysis study from 2010 researchers found that having social support and social connections was a major protective factor against dying, boosting survival rates by 50%. According to this study, the benefits of having healthy social relationships was as good as giving up 15 cigarettes a day and had a more important impact on physical health than exercising or avoiding obesity. Doing what you can to cultivate social connections may enable you to enjoy not only greater emotional but also physical benefits from these connections.

While changing behaviors is difficult for most of us, sometimes shifting how we are approaching our goals can help to make them more attainable. When we face obstacles along the path toward our goals, consider seeing them not as setbacks but as opportunities to build resilience along the way.