Family history is important in weighing the risk of disease, but genes alone do not dictate health. Your health habits count more than you think.
Unhealthy lifestyle habits that begin in youth can lead to chronic diseases and other health issues as we age. For example, poor nutrition and lack of exercise, which can lead to obesity, Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, often begin in childhood and are passed down through generations. Childhood is the best time to set healthy habits. Still, anyone at any age can make healthy behavioral changes like drinking enough water, moving throughout the day and engaging in sports or other physical activities.
Breaking habits are more difficult as we age. Smoking and drinking alcohol can become addictive. Playing video games or watching TV can replace more active routines over many years. Bad heath news often forces people into action: They enroll in a smoking cessation course after being diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. To be successful in making positive lifestyle changes as an adult, you must want to do it for yourself, not to please anyone else.
The first few weeks or month after starting on your healthy lifestyle journey are the hardest. Here are steps to break old routines and form new habits:
- Imagine what success looks like. “My most successful patients have a mind-body connection that motivates them in some way to change their lives,” says Sylvia Meléndez Klinger, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Hinsdale, Illinois. “They have a specific goal or vision of life once they cross the finish line, whether it means wearing a wedding grown, fitting into that little black dress they haven’t worn in years or managing health issues.” So, picture yourself already winning: being at your desired weight, managing your diabetes without drugs, or running a 5K race. You’re more likely to be successful with a winning mental attitude.
- Set a realistic, clear goal. Behavior changes that have the biggest impact on health, well-being and lifespan include a healthy diet, exercise, regular exercise, quitting smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation or not at all.
- Develop a plan for how to reach your goal. Whatever your goal—losing weight, lowering cholesterol, getting fit—start slow and move ahead in steps. Jumping in without a plan is setting yourself up for failure. Remember, you didn’t gain that extra 60 pounds in a month, and you’re not going to lose it in a month. You can realistically expect to lose 2 pounds a month with a healthy eating plan and regular exercise.
- Sharpen your shopping skills. Many people eat too many sugary, salty and fatty foods and not enough highly nutritious foods. If fresh fruits and vegetables are expensive because they are out of season, substitute canned or frozen foods. Read and understand the Nutrition Facts labels. Canned fruits, for example, come with or without sugar added.
- Limit your food portions. A healthy diet doesn’t mean depriving yourself of everything you love to eat, just eating it less often and not as much. For example, if you crave a cookie, don’t eat the whole thing; share part of it with someone else or only indulge on special occasions.
- Think about what you eat. Achieving a healthy weight or other goal takes mindfulness, which means thinking about everything you do. When tempted to eat or drink something you know is unhealthy, employ the 5 Minute Rule: Wait 5 minutes before deciding whether to indulge. Often the urge will pass.
- Add exercise to your day. When beginning to exercise, decide on an activity you enjoy. Do you like to dance, run, skate, walk, bike, swim or play a sport? Set a goal, write it down and share it with family or friends. If you like to run, you might set a goal to complete a 5K run or marathon, but it could be as simple as targeting 30 minutes of daily exercise. Start out slow and build up your stamina to achieve the goal. If your goal is to walk 30 minutes per day, start out walking 15 or 20 minutes.
- Reward yourself when you reach a milestone. Choose an entertaining treat that helps you get to the next step. A reward for weight loss could be shopping for new exercise fashions, taking a bubble bath, getting a massage, buying tickets to a music concert or seeing a movie—anything that doesn’t involve food.
Let family members know about your goal, so they can help you reach it. Changing lifestyle behaviors can improve health outcomes for many diseases and bring a better sense of well-being. It’s difficult to make behavioral changes as adults, but with mindfulness and a vision of what success looks like, anyone can develop healthy habits.