• July 2013

Health Care: The 6 Secrets to Staying Motivated to Stay Healthy

By Dr. Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH

By midlife, most of us have spent the last 20 to 30 years cycling through diet and exercise programs, eventually giving up when either results don’t match expectations or we lose our motivation.

Unfortunately, this has caused many of us to feel that our lack of success is our fault because we “don’t have what it takes” or are simply lazy.

But it isn’t your fault. You are not lazy.

The approach that we have learned—to change our behavior and take care of ourselves—comes out of a “deficit” model. It focuses us on the negative and teaches us to initiate behavior change as a way to get rid of our “faults” and “imperfections” (a primary one being excess weight.) This approach just leads us to feel deficient and bad about ourselves.

We’ve also been socialized to adopt health behaviors to achieve certain things, usually with emphasizing benefits like “losing weight” and other health-related outcomes like “preventing disease.”

These reasons lead us to rebel against feeling controlled, and also promote shame and self-loathing. it’s no wonder that we eventually drop out.

The good news is that researchers are finding what we’ve known all along—the assumptions on which this deficit model is based are wrong. Following are six secrets to make it easier to stop sabotaging yourself and achieve the life-long results you yearn for.

Secret 1: Treat motivation as the result, not the source.

When we initiate a behavior change out of pressure or self-deprecation, it doesn’t take long before we stop our positive motivation and good behavior. To create high-quality motivation and lasting change, ask yourself—what is my true motivation? Does this promote feelings of self-worth, or self-rejection? When you seek out motivations that feel self-affirming and compelling, you’ll likely discover your behavior has transformed so that exercising becomes a gift to yourself, rather than a chore.

Secret 2: Kick your unconscious out of the driver’s seat.

It’s so cliché to say that we live our lives on autopilot. But it’s true. Many, if not most, of our daily decisions are driven automatically, outside of our awareness. Living unconsciously eases our cognitive load from living hectic lives. But, it is one of the greatest blocks to taking good care of ourselves and to creating lasting behavioral change.

We like to think we control what we believe and value. Yet, because socialization is an unconscious process, we all have internalized beliefs, goals, values, and priorities from others and from our culture without being consciously aware of it. For better and for worse, these socialized beliefs, life values, and daily goals direct much of our daily behavior outside of our conscious awareness.

Every day there are numerous decision points when we choose between what we had planned to do and fulfilling a last-minute request. If we do not mindfully and proactively choose which values and beliefs determine our priorities and resulting decisions, then the ones we have been socialized to believe often drive our choices. Without conscious decision-making about how we spend our daily minutes, we let others control our lives.

Take Action: Become mindful. This is crucial if our real values and priorities are going to direct our daily lives instead of the socialized ones hiding out in our unconscious mind. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an expert on mindful living and a hero of mine, refers to mindfulness as an “inner technology” we can all learn.

In order to change our behavior and sustain it, we have to be willing to witness the specific beliefs and values we’ve been socialized to have and then challenge their validity for our lives. The goal is to prevent unhelpful beliefs (and the negative voices of our parents, bosses, children, and spouses) from directing our lives. Deciding to live mindfully—instead of on autopilot—is an incredibly proactive and empowering move.

Secret 3: Become the CEO of your daily energy.

Our to-do lists often prioritize our loved ones and work needs higher than ourselves. We’ve been socialized so that things like “professional success” and “caring for loved ones” trump taking time to replenish our own energy and renew ourselves.

Many of us believe that the people we love and our other responsibilities benefit more when their needs are taken care of first. And society, our workplace, and our family often encourage this order of tending to things. It’s just pragmatic and it’s human nature. Whatever we take care of benefits. And we benefit, too, as a result.

But this is flawed logic.

Each of us is the energy center of every aspect of our very full lives. If we do not autonomously determine that we are going to take responsibility to fuel sufficient daily energy for our lives, it won’t happen. If we do not give ourselves permission to continually renew ourselves and our own energy, it simply runs out. When our energy is depleted, our resources for taking care of everyone and everything else are compromised.

This phenomenon reflects a brilliant paradox. By taking time away from other things to give yourself time for self-care and to foster your energy source, you have more energy to fulfill all of your roles and responsibilities. This strategy embodies being autonomous and taking charge of your daily living experiences.

Currently, most companies do not let employees take paid work time to do energy-renewing activities such as exercise or meditation. This, however, will start to change with the emergence of more evidence showing that companies get more (productivity, etc.) when they give more to employees.

Take Action: Take charge! Become the CEO of your energy. Give yourself permission to make decisions that improve how you feel as you live your life. Managing your energy strategically is essential for living a joyful life and achieving your meaningful goals.

Secret 4: Build consistency before quantity.

This secret reflects respecting what it takes to make changes that last. My advice may seem to contradict the “more is better” attitude toward healthy choices that dominates our culture. But I believe it reflects a smarter strategy if your goal is to integrate a behavior into your life in ways that you can maintain.

To create change that will last, you need to develop key skills to overcome the challenges that arise to your planned behavior and goals. It’s much easier to learn these essential skills and learn to become consistent with smaller goals.

This advice is hard to swallow in our culture, which loudly promotes instant gratification and quick fixes. We’ve been taught to strive toward lofty goals. Yet, if we don’t respect our own needs and make decisions that are in our long-term best interest, no one else will. Learning how to overcome barriers on smaller goals makes the path to lasting change more positive—and easier, too.

Take Action: File away your grandiose plans and goals for now. Be respectful of your learning process. Experiment with new strategies and attitudes to overcome the challenges that arise to your plans. Let yourself become consistent via smaller goals.

Then, as you begin to feel confident that you can overcome these barriers, start increasing your goals by modest amounts. (For example, if you want to sustain a more physically active life, take one to two months to learn how to add 5 to 10 minutes of physical activity to your life on most days.) You have your whole life to sustain behavior. Why not take sufficient time to learn how you can maintain it for the rest of your life?

Secret 5: Don’t change two hard behaviors at the same time.

Losing weight is an elusive but persistent goal for many of us. Our clinicians want us to lose weight to improve our health, our bosses want us to lose weight to save the company money, and we want to lose weight to feel better about ourselves.

It’s been presumed that the most effective way to lose and maintain weight is through simultaneously changing our diet and our level of physical activity. But this assumption is based on a medical model, not a psychological one.

Because most of us juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, many of us simply don’t have sufficient time, attention, and energy to focus on and successfully integrate both behaviors at the same time in ways we can sustain.

These two behaviors are completely different. They both tend to involve very difficult choices—all day long. Making dietary changes and adding exercise may kick-start weight loss. But is instant gratification or lasting results the goal?

In fact, research shows us that striving toward two difficult goals at the same time is not a great idea.

We now know that humans have a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. We get depleted by too many decisions necessitating self-control, and can’t maintain willpower. Thus, the convention in society to change diets at the same time as initiating regular exercise likely sabotages our ability to maintain these behaviors, something that ultimately undermines weight loss and health improvements.

Our mindset determines our behavior. How we think about behavior change determines our mindset about it—and ultimately what we achieve.

Take Action: Give yourself permission to master one behavior at a time, especially if changing two at the same time feels overwhelming. Don’t follow prescriptions or advice from “experts” that contradicts your past experience. You know more about your life than anyone.

Commit to long-term results, instead of instant ones. Give yourself adequate time to learn how to integrate the first behavior into your life consistently. Then, after you’ve mastered that behavior, start learning how to integrate the next one. (I advise taking six to 12 months to master one behavior.)

Secret 6: Get SMART about change. Begin with the end in mind.

Start with the end in mind. Stop aiming for quick fixes that you know by now don’t stick. Make life-long behavioral maintenance explicit in how you approach change. Everything I’ve learned about creating lasting change can be realized through getting onto what I call The “SMART” Path to Lasting Change. (See spiral below.) This path invites us to get very strategic and smart about creating change by guiding us to become more …

Self-Caring: Self-caring individuals initiate change out of respect for themselves. They desire to nurture their sense of well-being and create positive daily living experiences.

Mindful: Being mindful is about taking your mind off autopilot and living purposefully—and being—in the here and now.

Autonomous: Being autonomous means taking responsibility for our daily energy. It means being willing to buck the trend, whether it’s a fad diet, an exercise plan, or the advice and well-meaning intentions of those who love us best.

Respectful: It is important to respect our limitations and know what we can and can’t do. SMART women are responsive to the needs of
others, but also respect their own needs, and say “no” when necessary.

Tolerant: Being tolerant means being flexible and
adjusting to life on life’s terms instead of beating yourself up because you’re not “in sync” with what’s happening around you.

Use the SMART principles as your compass to behavior change.

Through following this path, you’ll not only unleash authentic motivation and foster lasting change—you will also discover how to truly own your life and create reserves of dynamic energy and well-being that you never thought possible.

About Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH

Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, creates systems and protocols that lead to the sustainable motivation and consistent decision-making that underlie fitness, health, and well-being. She is a University of Michigan behavioral sustainability and motivation scientist; the associate director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls; and a Health Policy Fellow at the Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation.