The first two questions, which can be found in Part 1, focused on the “why” – whether you’re ready to change your habits, and if so, what your motivations for change are. There’s a saying: With a strong enough “why,” the “what” and “how” make themselves clear. These next three questions will focus on exactly that: the what and how to achieve sustainable fitness.
Questions 3 & 4: The Past Leaves Clues
Question #3: Which of your habits do you think have contributed to your current condition?
Review where you’ve been to look for ways to improve going forward. Think about a time in your life when you were in better physical condition or health, even if it was a few decades ago. What were your habits then? Did you eat better? Were you more active? Did you sit less?
I’m not implying that you need to become the person you were many years ago. But tracking your life from that point will reveal the progression of habit changes that led you to your current circumstances.
Of the less-than-ideal habits that have become your routine over the years, which are modifiable? For example, you can always eat more fruits and veggies again, but if you have osteoarthritis, certain physical activities may be off the table (but not all of them!). To figure out the causes of habit changes, you can draw a timeline of your health or weight and make inflection points where your body changed significantly – was it when you started a new job? Graduated from college? Got into a new relationship? Then think about how your habits changed as a result of that inflection point. Write down all of the factors you can think of. The more ideas you have, the more opportunities you have to make improvements…and get results. Questions #4 and #5 will build off this list.
Question #4: Have you successfully changed your non-ideal habits in the past? If so, how?
The list you created from Question #3 is full of insights into the challenges you’re facing when trying to make positive changes to your eating or physical activity habits. Now, how can you best tackle those challenges?
Previous successes are a great place to look for ways to improve your current situation. If you’ve been successful with working through challenges in the past, walk yourself through how you did it – even if those challenges weren’t related to nutrition or exercise. Are you a planner? Do you make it a point to avoid temptations? Do you take it one small step at a time? Do you reach out to experts for guidance?
If you’ve been successful with a diet or fitness plan before, think about what aspects of the plan were not only successful, but also felt sustainable. What strategies did you create to stick to the plan, even if only for a few weeks or months? Which of those ideas and techniques can you use this time around?
Remember also which aspects of previous plans were not sustainable. Those are strategies you may want to avoid in the future. Are there any extremes you now know to avoid, or any “happy mediums” that you can pull from your experiences? For example, did a previous diet require eating no grains, ever? So you went from eating four servings of grain a day to eating zero…and then eventually realized that maybe you’d like to eat a piece of bread or pasta again at some point in your life? A happy medium could be two servings per day – not none at all, but not too much. That’s an improvement on your current habit, but it’s more sustainable than your previous attempts. List any and all ideas that come to mind. We’ll sort out the ideas with Question #5.
Question 5: Putting It All Together
With the previous two questions, you’ve assessed what factors brought you to your current health or fitness situation, as well as what personal strengths and previous experiences you can use to overcome them. Now it’s time to take your potential solutions and hold them up against your current comfort zone. This is where the tires hit the pavement and progress begins.
Question #5: Considering your current circumstances, what is one action you can take to get closer to your goal? What steps will you take to make that action possible?
Human behavior research shows that we’re really only good at changing one major habit at a time. Maybe two if you have a lot of time, motivation and accountability. But as you increase the number of changes you make, the odds of any of them sticking shrink very close to zero. And that’s why lots of the good ideas you had during previous diets or fitness plans didn’t stay around…they were probably linked with a lot of other extreme or restrictive requirements. So rather than ditching just the unrealistic stuff, you may have ditched all of it. The baby and the bath water.
So instead of throwing a bunch of stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks, take a look at your current habits, preferences and lifestyle to figure out what is most likely to stick – and go for one educated throw at a time. Each throw represents a particular action that’s an improvement in your eating or physical activity habits, such as exercising one more day per week, eating four more servings of veggies per week, drinking one more glass of water every day, walking an extra 1,000 steps per day, etc. If it works, great! If not, then you have lots of other ideas to try from all of your brainstorming these past few days…try one or two at a time until you find the ones that work for you.
For more ideas on getting started, check out the Resources page or pick up a copy of Death of the Diet. It focuses on the eight most common habit changes that have been shown to get results and provides pages of tips for taking action on each one.
If you’re ever not sure about whether a particular habit change will work for you, imagine yourself performing it – actually picture it in your mind. Then ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how sustainable does this change feel to me; how likely is it that I can make that part of my regular routine?” If it’s not a 9 or 10, what would have to happen for you to get closer to a 9 or 10? If you can’t raise that feeling up to at least a 7, then consider a different action.
Once you’ve chosen a habit to change, write down all of the practical steps you’ll have to take to support the change. For example, if you’re going to go running one more day per week, how will you make sure that happens? What day will it be? When will it be, morning before work or evening? Will you have to go to bed earlier the night before so you feel rested? Will you have to move the alarm away from your bed to make sure you get up? Will you go to bed wearing your running clothes so all you have to do is wake up and put on your sneakers? Do you need to leave work earlier – and will that mean getting certain tasks done earlier in the workday? Do you need to bring your sneakers and running clothes with you to work? The more you plan ahead and write down the exact details of what you’ll do to make your new action possible, the easier and more likely it’ll be that action will happen. Death of the Diet also has a hefty section on creating effective plans to take consistent action.
So after brainstorming on today’s questions, you’ll have a particular habit you’re going to change to get you closer to your goals, and a set of steps to describe how you’ll take action on a regular basis. Part 3 will explore ways you can make sustainable fitness changes even easier…and what to do if you run into bumps along the way.