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Turning Resolutions Into Routines

Tips to help you achieve your health goals

Quit smokingWhether you want to give up cigarettes, eat better or exercise more, Rasa Kazlauskaite, MD, of the Rush University Prevention Center has advice that can help you form and maintain healthier habits any day of the year.

Q: What makes maintaining healthy habits such a challenge for so many of us?

Kazlauskaite: One of the principal challenges, I think, is time management. Eating healthily is not only about selecting healthy foods. It's also about eating on time and planning ahead. If you don't eat your three meals, for example, you might get too hungry to exercise self-control and make good choices.

So if you're busy, you have to plan ahead: What will you do the next time you need to eat? Planning can be as simple as packing a healthy sandwich for lunch, or keeping a protein snacks, such as low calorie protein bar or light yogurt, rather than sugary snacks.

Another very important part of the equation is sleep. Research has shown that sleep deprivation can have an effect on your cognitive function similar to the effect of alcohol intoxication. It's hard to make really sound decisions when your brain is that clouded, so you have to make sure that you plan to get your seven hours of sleep each night.

Q: But there are only 24 hours in a day — what if you simply don't have enough time to include exercise or cooking or other healthy activities in your plans every day?

Kazlauskaite: No matter how busy you are, you can monitor yourself, and that can have a very positive effect. Even if you don't have enough time to build much physical activity into your day, I strongly recommend getting a pedometer. It keeps you in check.

After, say, coming back from shopping and seeing that there still aren't enough steps on your pedometer (10,000 is a good goal for healthy adults), you might choose to go for a stroll before you enter your home. There are so many gadgets like this that can help you to stay aware of your choices — Web sites and smart phone apps that count calories, for example.

It's hard for humans to think in calories, but if you let the technology do that for you, it might help you see where you can cut down your portions or have more protein and vegetables instead of carbs and fat.

Q: Sometimes, though, even with time and planning, it's still hard to make good choices. Any tips for staying motivated?

Enlist your friends. The people who are most successful in our programs are usually those who have friends with whom they exercise or share healthy meals or quit smoking. So, as much as you can, surround yourself with people who live healthily so you don't feel like an outcast when you make healthy lifestyle changes.

It's important to have social support.

Also, don't think in terms of restrictions; think in terms of fun activities. If you're planning physical activity, think about what you liked doing as a kid and try to return that sense of play into your life — because if it's not fun, you're not going to do it for very long.

At the same time, don't quit doing something immediately if you don't love it. With an exercise activity, it can take five or seven sessions to find out if you like it. And if you stick with changes, they will eventually become your new norm, rather than something you have to force yourself to do.

December 2011