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Turning Resolutions Into Routines

6 strategies to help you achieve your health goals

We've all made New Year's resolutions, from losing that pesky spare tire to going to the gym more than twice a year. 

But how often have your resolutions fizzled after a few weeks or months? How many times have you made the exact same resolution as in the past? If you're like most people, more often than you'd care to admit.

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 behaviors, most people go through the stages of change several times before the new behavior becomes firmly established.

Though behavior changes can be difficult, there are strategies that can help. Whether you've vowed to give up cigarettes, eat better or be more active, Rasa Kazlauskaite, MD, of the Rush University Prevention Center, and Lynne Braun, PhD, RN, CNP, a nurse practitioner at the Rush Heart Center for Women have six tips to help you form and maintain healthier habits year-round.

1. Decide where to start.

The process can begin with making choices — especially for people who need to make several changes.

It can be difficult — and stressful — to try changing everything at once. 

To keep from feeling overwhelmed, pick one issue to tackle first. Start with the most important change. For example, if you have high blood pressure, focus on taking your medications regularly. If you smoke, find a smoking cessation plan you think will work for you.

And set specific, realistic goals. If you've vowed to get in shape, start by simply walking 15 minutes every day. You can then build up to longer and more frequent activities. 

2. Plan ahead.

One of the biggest challenges in keeping resolutions 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 breakfast, lunch and dinner, for example, you might get too hungry to exercise self-control and make good choices.

So if you're busy, plan ahead: This can be as simple as packing a healthy sandwich and raw veggies for lunch. Or keeping healthy snacks, such as roasted almonds or whole wheat crackers, in your desk drawer or glove compartment. 

And if getting to the gym after work is a constant challenge, pack your workout gear in the morning and bring it with you. Then, change at the office so you're ready to start working out as soon as you get to the gym.

To ensure hunger doesn't derail your evening workouts, have a light late afternoon snack (just don't eat too much or you may feel too full to exercise). 

3. Don't skimp on sleep.

Another important part of the equation is getting enough rest.

Research has shown that the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive function are similar to the effects of alcohol intoxication. And we all know you don't make the best choices when you're tipsy or drunk. 

To keep your mind sharp and focused, strive to get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Good sleep habits will also help you feel more refreshed in the morning and give you more energy to power through the day (including that evening workout).

Set specific, realistic goals. If you've vowed to get in shape, start by simply walking 15 minutes every day. You can then build up to longer and more frequent activities.

4. Keep track of your behaviors.

From fitness devices to calorie-counting apps to old-fashioned pedometers, these days it's easier than ever to monitor your health.

These tools can help ensure that no matter how busy you are, you're getting enough physical activity and not overeating. And charting your progress as you increase activity and shed pounds can help you stay motivated to keep going. 

Finally, weigh yourself regularly. You don't need to step on the scale every day, but chart your weight at least once a week to make sure you're on track. Weekly weigh-ins will also let you know when you've hit plateaus. 

5. Enlist your family and friends.

When it comes to eating right, exercising and quitting smoking, having a partner to share the journey can make a huge difference. You'll have someone to encourage you, but also to hold you accountable.

This is especially important when you're trying to shed bad habits, such as smoking. 

As much as possible, surround yourself with people who lead healthy lives and don't engage in the behaviors you're trying to change. That way, you'll have support when you make your own good choices. 

Your family can also help you prepare your home: for instance, purging the fridge and pantry of tempting treats, or removing ashtrays and hidden packs of cigarettes. Creating a healthier environment will make it easier for you to succeed. 

6. Embrace your inner child.

If you're looking for a way to be more active, think back to the activities enjoyed doing as a child. You might still enjoy them as an adult. Try to return that sense of play into your life — because if an activity isn't fun, you're not going to stick with it for long.

So take that hip hop class. Tackle the rock climbing wall. Go roller skating or skateboarding. The key is to get — and stay — active.  

At the same time, don't quit doing something immediately if you don't love it. With any type of exercise, it can take five or seven sessions to find out if you truly 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.

Finally, don't think of resolutions as being restrictions. Instead, focus on what you hope to accomplish this year, and how good you'll feel when you get there.

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