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Changing Health Habits

6th July 2009 by Carol Posted in Uncategorized

As we get older, we begin living with the consequences of poor choices we made when younger. All those extra pieces of cheesecake or the cigarettes start to show their effect in new and more annoying ways. A visit to the doctor will entail some kind of lecture about the need to change one’s lifestyle. So, how do you do that?

There are two main methods for lifestyle change. One is the cold turkey method and the other is the baby steps method. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages but if you know about both of them, you can switch methods if one doesn’t work for you.

Cold Turkey
You have some kind of cardiac event that is not quite a heart attack and the doctor tells you that the cigarettes could make it a heart attack next time. The cold turkey method is to pitch the cigarettes even before you get home and never touch one again.

This method is logical for habits that are life-threatening to yourself or others, such as smoking or drinking excessively (and driving). It also has the advantage of being immediately effective. It’s also harder to manipulate yourself back into denial if you just tell yourself you are not going to touch those cancer sticks again. In the case of alcohol or drugs, if you try to wean yourself off, you put yourself in the position of lowering your inhibitions and making bad decisions about the alcohol or drugs while high.

If you have a problem with certain foods, such as white sugar, cold turkey works. It is very difficult psychologically to limit desserts, so buying some sugar free treats as substitutes and swearing off real sugar may be the best way to go.

Baby Steps
While the cold turkey method is psychologically satisfying because you experience an immediate change, it can be challenging to maintain. For example, if your problem is high cholesterol and your doctor recommends a diet and exercise, the cold turkey method is to reduce your intake to 1800 calories per day and do an hour of exercise every day. You follow this new regime for about a week and then you find yourself slipping back into old habits. You need baby steps.

If your rate of exercise is basically zero every day, then anything you do is going to be better than nothing. So, do five minutes and call that good. When you are used to doing five minutes a day, you can then go to ten minutes. In this way you can build yourself up to longer times. Also psychologically it is easier to commit to five minutes every day, which anyone can do, than to commit to an hour a day.

When you are choosing how to develop your new habit, consider the likelihood of reverting to old habits along with your history of being able to make changes. Try to plan out a method that is going to work for you, given your history. If you find that one method is not working, figure out why and make new plans. For example, suppose you decide that since you never drive while drinking you will limit yourself to one beer per evening. Then you discover that you cannot keep to the limit. That is time to change your strategy and it may be an indication of the need for the cold turkey method.

Or suppose on January first you have a list of twenty things you are going to do to get in shape and by January eighteenth you aren’t doing any of them, then it’s time to consider how you can break down those twenty things into a series of baby steps.

It is possible to change habits but in doing so, you have to set yourself up for success by choosing how you will change. When you pay attention to the reasons why you struggle, you will become more and more effective at honing your methods.

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