Regular exercise — it's a habit that can reduce nearly every health risk, says Lynne Braun, PhD, RN, CNP, a nurse practitioner at the Rush Heart Center for Women. It seems like a simple prescription for health. But if healthful lifestyle habits, such as exercising, eating right and not smoking, aren't already part of your lifestyle, your first prescription may be for behavior change.
Staging your change
When it comes to the benefits of healthful behavior change, Braun is an expert. She researches cardiovascular risk reduction and counsels people on incorporating heart-healthy behaviors into their lives.
According to Braun, changes in behavior happen in the following stages:
- Contemplation, when you are considering a change but haven't yet made a commitment
Preparation, when you intend to take action in the near future
- Action, when you have made the commitment and take specific steps toward new behaviors
- Maintenance and relapse prevention, when new behaviors become part of your everyday life
"When trying to change the behaviors that led them toward heart disease in the first place, most people go through the stages of change several times before the new behavior becomes firmly established," Braun says.
Getting it right
Though behavior changes can be difficult, there are strategies that can help. According to Braun, the process can start with making choices — especially for people who need to make several changes.
"Decide where to start," she says. "It's difficult to do everything at once, so work with the most important changes first."
For example, she would advise people with high blood pressure to work on taking their medications regularly. Quitting smoking is another essential behavior change and one that often involves an important factor — the patient's significant other.
"I encourage patients to bring in their partners or spouses," Braun says. "They may both need to make changes, and it helps if they do it together."
Couples and individuals can also boost the likeli-hood for success by taking the following steps:
- Prepare your environment. If you want to stop smoking, for example, get rid of your ashtrays and change your routine.
- Have specific, realistic goals. If you're trying
to become more active, try walking at least 15 minutes a day, and then build up to longer and more frequent activity.
- Monitor your progress. If you are trying to lose weight, weigh yourself regularly or wear a pedometer to check how far you walk.
- Partner with a friend or join a group with common goals for encouragement and feedback on your progress.
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