Tips for a Change
July 18, 2010
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By: Stacy Sawyer
Does making healthy choices ever become a habit after a few decades of eating junk food? I certainly hope so. With the help of the American Heart Association, we now know what really works to make these changes. We're continually told to exercise more, eat less junk food, and on and on. But no one has figured out how to get the average American to actually make those changes a lifestyle - until now.
The experts found self-help programs aren't nearly as effective at helping most people eat healthier, be more physically active or lose weight. Yet counseling, extended follow-up from a healthcare provider, and group support are the most effective ways to live a healthier lifestyle.
Here's the steps that work:
Know your risk
: Many people don't realize they're at risk for disease. This is the first step - know what you're at risk of, in particular cardiovascular disease which is the number 1 killer of Americans. You can visit the My Life Check tool (www.heart.org/mylifecheck) to get your personal heart score and a custom plan with the seven simple steps you can do to start living a healthier life.
Make them achievable, but not too easy nor impossible to reach. Be as specific as possible. When compared to people who have no goals or vague goals, those with specific goals for getting more physical activity, increasing the amount of healthy foods they eat or losing weight are most likely to succeed.
Monitor your progress
: Track your progress with pen and paper, at on-line tracking sites, such as Heart360.com (www.heart360.com), or by using tools supplied by a program you are participating in. Studies have shown that participants who frequently monitored their progress were more successful at attaining their goals than those who monitored infrequently or irregularly.
Try a small group
: Learning as part of a group led by a healthcare professional or trained lay-person is one of the most effective ways to make lasting lifestyle changes. Ideally, the group should have between seven and ten people, and be composed of people you feel comfortable with - similar in age, native language or gender.
Talk to your healthcare provider or contact your local hospital or clinic to see if there are nutrition, wellness or physical activity programs/classes available in your area.
Consider one-on-one counseling
: Individualized help, tailored to your specific needs is also a good method to help you make healthy changes to your life. Make sure that your health counselor helps you feel motivated and positive, and helps you brainstorm solutions to your personal roadblocks. One-on-one programs can be conducted in-person, by telephone, on electronically or with a combination of approaches.
Ask about follow-ups
: Whether you are working one-on-one or in a group, the experts found that it was important for a healthcare professional or counselor follow up on how you are doing on a regular basis. These follow-up sessions help you maintain your healthier lifestyle, and whatever program you choose should include follow-ups.
Manage your lapses
: Most of us will all have a lapse or two, maybe even more. Relapses are normal and expected - it is how you handle a relapse that will determine your success. Whether you are working one-on-one or in a group, your program should help you develop strategies about how to handle temporary setbacks and get back to your healthier habits as soon as possible.
A word about self-help
: Books, brochures and websites with generalized information - that is, not individualized to you as a person - were the least effective ways to motivate people to make long-term lifestyle changes. That is not to say these resources are useless as they provide valuable information about awareness of health issues and what to do about them, but the experts determined they are less likely to help you actually make the changes you need to make.
In the end, getting involved in a program that fits you, where there's accountability and support will help the most in making any type of lifestyle change. Maybe it's an online program, a runners club, a weight loss group, or a group of friends with the same goals. Regardless of what you choose to do, remember it's never too late to change old habits.
Communications Director -- American Heart Association
Stacy Sawyer is the Director of Communications for the American Heart Association. She can be reached at (989) 225-7513.
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