Week Eleven: Staying Motivated and Getting Support

Deciding to make lifestyle changes, like going on a diet or a fitness regimen, is easy. Staying on for the duration is not. If you are a member or regular visitor of a gym, you know how busy it gets in January when “resolution season” comes around. A few weeks later, it’s back to normal. Most people give up.

If you have seriously tried to do something about your health in the past but then fell off the proverbial “wagon” after some time, don’t automatically assume that it was all your fault. It happens to almost everyone.

Staying motivated and getting support

The most common cause for failing is not that people are weak, undisciplined, lack motivation or just don’t have what it takes. Many of us have good and valid reasons for aborting our well-intended efforts: I’m just too busy. There are not enough hours in the day to squeeze in a work-out session. I can’t commit to a regular schedule. The nearest gym is too far away. It’s not safe to go for a run in the park. There are no health food stores in my neighborhood. Healthy foods are terribly expensive. I don’t have time to cook. I would love to be more health-conscious but my family won’t go along.

These are not all just cheap excuses. They describe serious obstacles. It is not unusual for people to find the odds stacked against them when they try to make changes in their lives. Most of us are already overburdened with our hectic schedules and endless to-do-lists. Carving out a health-conscious lifestyle can feel like “mission impossible.” Any program or regimen worth signing up for must take these real-life challenges into account.

Taking care of your health needs is important, regardless of your situation
Good health first of all means that you are – or become – as healthy as you can be. Perhaps, you discover that you are not too far off to begin with but want to do something to give your body a little extra boost. Maybe you’ve lost some of your usual vitality and feel the need to increase your energy and fitness level. Or you want to shed a few pounds to get back to your ideal weight. Your age may require you to pay a little more attention to your health than you used to. Or you’re recovering from an illness, are being treated for a chronic disease or want to support your body’s natural defenses as much as possible. Perhaps, you realize that you have let yourself go for far too long and it’s finally time to do something about that.

In truth, it doesn’t really matter what your situation is or what motivates you to take action, as long as you move in the right direction and continue on your chosen path – hopefully for the rest of your life. The approach you take must be a good fit for you. But your situation and circumstances should never be an excuse or tempt you, even temporarily, to cut corners when it comes to taking care of your health and well-being.

Taking charge and making a serious commitment
In my years as a dietitian and health counselor, I have seen many clients struggling with lifestyle-related health issues, from obesity to addiction to life-threatening illnesses. When people decide (or are forced) to give up old habits, like overeating, drinking, smoking, etc., they tend to become emotionally quite vulnerable. Some feel guilty and ashamed for having neglected their health, knowing full well the damage they are facing is self-inflicted. Some have relapsed and are frustrated and disappointed in themselves. Others grapple with symptoms of withdrawal and deprivation. Negative emotions themselves can become obstacles in the therapeutic process.

Before I accept new patients, I always ask about their hopes and expectations. In my experience, it is always helpful to start out on a positive note and envision the best possible scenario. But I also insist that my clients clearly understand that they are required to be fully committed and take complete responsibility for their recovery process. It is their journey. They must own it. I can only point them in the right direction, which they hopefully will follow. I strongly believe that people can almost always achieve their goals if they are sufficiently motivated and able to maintain their motivation over time.

Having realistic expectations
Having reasonably high expectations and setting ambitious targets are important components for success, but if they are not realistic, they can sabotage the best intentions. Unfortunately, many people set the mark way too high for themselves and then give up too quickly because they are not getting the results they were hoping for.

Unfortunately, quick-fix weight loss and fitness programs are as popular as ever, although they rarely ever deliver what they promise – not in the long run anyway. Lasting lifestyle changes don’t take place over night. They manifest themselves incrementally and may not always be noticeable for some time.

Keeping your commitment
Commitment is not only a question of will-power and discipline. It is also, and perhaps foremost, a matter of vision and imagination. In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Powerful Lessons in Personal Change” (Free Press, 1989), the author, Stephen R. Covey, recommends that we always pursue our goals with the desired outcome in mind. “All things are created twice,” he writes. First, we “create” our intentions in our minds by the power of our imagination. Then we bring them to realization according to our vision. It is this vision that can serve us as a blueprint or compass, guiding us when we are at risk of losing our ways or abandoning our goals.

This concept works on many levels and can be applied to many situations. Whenever you waver and feel like giving up, just ask yourself what you were imagining that the outcome would be. What was it that motivated you in the beginning and are your motives still valid? If so, all you need to do is recommit yourself to your original vision and continue with your pursuit.

Focusing on the positive
Every journey is filled with ups and downs, advances and setbacks. But your focus should always be on successes, not on failures. By focusing on the positive, you stay proactive and concentrate on the future. Don’t spend your energy on the negative that has already taken place and can’t be changed. There’s no sense in getting stuck in the past.

Managing your actions
You are never on a health program or fitness regimen all the time. Unless you live in a situation where you can determine and control everything that happens in your day (like on a deserted island all by yourself), your commitment must be managed. Often that means planning ahead. Sometimes it may require compromise, even deviation from your routine. It may call for flexibility and improvisation. But it should not lead you to failure.

What’s most important is that you don’t get into a habit of making more and more excuses. Understand that this is an ongoing process that you control. Monitoring your own behavior and managing your own actions does not have to turn you into a scrupulous or neurotic person. All it means is that you become increasingly conscious of your actions. Know your habits and tendencies. Be aware how you respond to temptations and learn to deal with them constructively. For example, if chocolate or ice cream are particularly tempting for you, avoid them or find healthier alternatives. If all else fails, make up for the damage later, like exercising more or reducing calorie intake for a little longer.

Accepting your limitations
Whatever your goals are, be prepared for some degree of failure along the way. It’s almost inevitable that you are going to experience certain setbacks. Don’t define your success solely from the perspective of best possible outcome. Rather value and appreciate everything that brings you closer to accomplishing your goals. Eventually, even the smallest steps will add up and let you go the distance.

Seeking support and avoiding dependence
When you introduce changes in your life, your social surroundings will inevitably be affected by your decisions. Don’t assume that everyone who loves you and wishes you well also agrees with your choices. If you are the one who’s in charge of food shopping and cooking and you make dietary changes, other members of your household will share those, whether they like it or not.

Asking for (and getting) support from family and friends can be difficult. The people closest to you may not always be your best advisers. You may be better off consulting with your doctor, dietitian or coach with whom you have a professional relationship. Maintaining a little emotional distance can sometimes be quite helpful.

Also keep in mind that you will undergo physical changes, i.e. losing weight, getting in shape, being able to dress differently, etc. You may receive more attention. Be prepared that your spouse or partner could feel threatened or become jealous. It is not unheard of that loved ones play a counter-productive role in people’s efforts to improve their lives.

If you encounter resistance from relatives or friends, deal with it right away to head off any dysfunctional developments later. You don’t have to be confrontational or defensive. Discuss openly the reasons for their lack of support or non-cooperation. Explain patiently what your needs are and how they may change over time. Good communication is always key.

Last, but not least, caution yourself not to become too dependent on outside supporters. You are not required to maintain long-term relationships with your coach, support group or whoever you share your journey with. Remember, you make changes in your life for your own benefit and the sake of your own well-being. Continue to Week Twelve »

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