Magazine Article

Turning Points

December 8th, 2011

By M. Susan Wilson

Turning Points

Breaking bad habits and making healthy, lasting changes can be tough. But there’s no need to go it alone. Drawing on the wisdom of WAC professionals and leading experts, we offer hard-won advice for making change.

Most of us have something we want to change. Improving our diets. Exercising more. Giving up harmful vices. Strengthening our relationships. Expanding our social circle. We all know these things are good for us. And yet, sometimes, we struggle.

“Change is hard,” says WAC Fitness Manager Megan Usui. “But it’s also fascinating.” Like so many professionals at the WAC, Megan spends her days helping members live their best lives. Sometimes that means making big changes to a diet or fitness routine.

This month, as part of our focus on wellness and the upcoming Health & Wellness Fair at the WAC, we are examining the challenges to and strategies for making healthy, lasting changes in our lives. We consulted experts here at the WAC as well as individuals who devote their careers to helping other people make—and stick to—significant behavioral changes. We asked them to help us understand why and how people make lasting changes. What prevents us from changing even when we know it’s good for us? How do people break through common barriers to change? And how do you know you’re ready for change?

The result: Six straightforward strategies for making change in your life and realizing your optimal health and well-being.

Know Your Motivation

We’ve all heard the saying “no one changes unless they want to.” In other words, just because the doctor told you your blood pressure is high and you need to change your diet and exercise habits doesn’t mean you’re going to do it.

The reason, says Dr. David Rosengren, a researcher in the University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute and the director of Research and Evaluation Services at the Prevention Research Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, lies in the distinction between external and internal motivators.

Dr. Rosengren is an expert in motivational interviewing (MI), a therapeutic technique that seeks to resolve ambivalence toward change by uncovering a person’s ideas, beliefs, values and emotions about that change. In other words, the MI therapist tries to find clients’ internal motivations by helping them discover or reinforce why particular changes are important to them.

In the case of a hypothetical man with high blood pressure, the MI therapist might start by asking what he thinks of his overall health. Why is it important to him to feel healthy? How does his health affect his role as a parent or a partner? And, how does having high blood pressure fit in with all this? Finally, how does being healthier weigh up against the challenges that seem to hold him to the status quo, which may include finding the time to work out, avoiding unhealthy choices in the lunchroom and so on?

According to Dr. Rosengren, once you look deeply and get to the crux of why you want to change, other factors will fall more easily into place.

“Once people start moving forward—and start seeing possibility and hope—the other parts [that maintain the status quo] become less important to them,” he says. “They begin to act on these other parts in productive ways.”

Choose Your Words Wisely

Lela Bryan is an expert in smoking cessation and a frequent consultant at the WAC. She is also the woman behind Nicotine Solutions, which claims a 90 percent success rate among clients at the end of its eight-week program, with 70 percent still smoke-free one year later.

But, according to Lela, she doesn’t help her clients give up smoking. Instead, she says, she helps them “get rid of it.”

“If you have a bag of garbage and it has been sitting in the sun for four days … you wouldn’t say you are going to give up that garbage, would you?” stresses Lela. The problem inherent in framing quitting as “giving up,” Lela cautions, is that you are going to “get it back.”

“And will you get it back?” she asks. “Yes. Because you are really smart.”

Dr. Rosengren agrees: Language can powerfully impact change. “Research in the alcohol and drug field has shown that if people are trying to change a behavior, their ability to articulate quickly three important reasons why they want to stop is related to the success of outcomes,” Dr. Rosengren says.

The reason? Our brains are designed to help us maintain habits. “Whatever our habit is,” Dr. Rosengren says, “we’ve wired our brains to follow that path more easily.”

When individuals articulate their reasons for wanting to change their behaviors, they are, Dr. Rosengren says, “creating a counter path every time they produce those arguments.” In other words, they are effectively “rewiring” the brains.

Assemble a Support Team

Once you’ve decided you want to make a change, creating a supportive environment is a key factor in achieving your goal.

Megan Usui works with many members who are striving to lower their body-fat percentage.

“People who struggle are often victims of their environment,” Megan observes. “They live or work with people who have poor habits, and mirror them.”

The solution, Megan says, is simple: Add and subtract. “Slowly, at your own pace,” Megan says, “try to subtract the environment or people you don’t want, and add the environment and people that support your goals. ”When building a team, choose your most-honest friends, Megan advises, and give them distinct permission to call you on any missteps.

“It’s a whole different ballgame,” Megan says, “when you tell someone ‘I am trying to lose weight’ versus ‘If you see me eating that muffin in the morning that I usually do, call me out on it!’ Then, people know it’s safe to do that. ”One key team member, Megan says, may be a professional trainer. Again, if you’re trying to lose body fat, the help of a trainer may be crucial. In a society where weight loss is big business—with reality TV, articles and ads on the topic—it’s easy to get overwhelmed. “You can let that trainer manage the progress and the plan,” says Megan. “And then you don’t spend so much time worrying about ‘Am I doing the right thing?’”

A bonus to building a team: Social connection in and of itself is a big factor of overall wellness. “Connecting with each other and keeping your spirit engaged is as important as a workout,” says WAC Vice President Club Programs Melissa Borders, who spends her days helping members engage through group events and outings. “And it’s probably easier and more fun,” she says.

Building on Incremental Success

WAC Wellness manager Tamela Thomas appreciates the wisdom of a well-worn saying: “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” Tamela does metabolic testing for WAC members and uses the results to create personalized cardio-workout programs designed to maximize fat burning.

In designing these programs, Tamela advocates what she calls the “minnow” philosophy. “When trying to make a change in diet or in an exercise program, we suggest that you start small,” she says.

So, if your goal is to lose 100 pounds, start with 10. Breaking it down into smaller, attainable increments will help you succeed, which is itself an extremely motivating experience.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Successful change-makers have one key thing in common, says UW Associate Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences Dr. Christopher Dunn: a knack for renewing their motivation along the way.

“You go to the doctor, and he asks, ‘Do you smoke?’” Dr. Dunn says. “And the patient says, ‘No, I haven’t had a cigarette in 61 days, four hours and 31 minutes. I feel GREAT.’ They then start talking about why they are winning, how much better they feel.” According to Dr. Dunn, “You get a flood of ‘change talk,’”—positive, productive talk about a particular change, which is the gold mine for MI therapists. “This is how folks renew their motivation,” Dr. Dunn says.

Of course, there may be times when you can talk change all you like, but you just aren’t feeling it. “There’s going to be a day when you are not motivated,” says WAC Nutritionist Shana Hopkins, speaking from experience.

When that day arrives, she advises clients, “Keep your eye on the long-term goal. Sometimes life is about putting one foot in front of the next and getting results.”

Practice Maintenance

Making a change is one thing; maintaining it is another.

When working with weight-loss clients, Shana practices the minnow philosophy—break goals into increments—and some-times advises clients to rest somewhere in the middle and simply strive to plateau for a while. The reason, Shana says, is to remind clients of an important lesson: “It’s about developing long-term habits. You have to maintain. Maybe you won’t have to do as much or you can eat a few more calories or have an extra night out without worrying about so much. But 80 percent to 90 percent of the time, you will still be doing these behaviors I’m teaching you.”

Bottom line: Like most worthwhile things in life, healthy, lasting change takes work—and commitment. The good news is we know more now than ever about the science and practice of change. With the right mindset and support, even the big changes are doable.

And, just as success can build on success, change can build on change. Alter one habit, and you might be surprised how it affects your outlook, your confidence, your physical self.

“In the long run,” says Shana of her clients, “the payoff is health.” And that may be the biggest motivator of all.