Sustainable changes Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2010

Many of us say we want to make changes in the way we live our lives — whether it’s losing weight, eating healthier or living a more active lifestyle. Many of us follow through with those changes, others, not so much.

And, when it comes to making a lifestyle change that endures — one that can ultimately improve one’s health and quality of life — it’s even more elusive.

“Making a lifestyle change that endures requires commitment and effort sustained over time,” says Tim Cline, senior director of clinical training and program development for health promotion at UPMC Health Plan.

Smart Business talked with Cline about wellness and sustainable lifestyle change and how to get started.

What makes lifestyle change an issue of importance to employers?

Encouraging meaningful, sustainable lifestyle change through employee wellness programs is important to employers because such programs help to raise employee morale and improve employee retention. Such programs have also been shown to reduce ‘presenteeism’ and unplanned absences. Wellness programs have been shown to improve the health and productivity of the work force and stem the radically escalating costs of chronic diseases.

What is the key to making sustainable lifestyle changes?

Beware of products and services that tout a ‘quick fix’ or unheard of results. There is no single, magic key to success. A well-executed plan of small, progressive changes is the best way to achieve big, long-term goals.

However, one factor that has caught increased attention from the scientific community is social support. Involving others who can be receptive and responsive to your need to make a change can have a significant impact on your success.

What if you need to change more than one lifestyle behavior?

It’s still important to work on one lifestyle goal at a time. Your doctor or other health care provider can help you prioritize. It’s a good idea, however, to keep other lifestyle risks in check while you focus on your main goal. For example, rather than trying to lose weight while quitting smoking, focus on minimizing additional weight gain until you’re comfortable with your new nonsmoking lifestyle. Then you can tackle the weight issue.

What can you do to make long-term lifestyle goals more attainable?

It makes the most sense to take things in small-size bites. Break big, long-term goals into smaller, easier-to-handle tasks. If you currently walk 30 minutes a week and your long-term goal is to reach 150 minutes of physical activity per week, don’t try to get there overnight. Begin by adding 10 minutes of walking or other physical activity for the next week. Each week you hit your goal, add 10 more minutes until you reach your long-term goal.

What is the best way to maintain progress toward a long-term lifestyle goal?

Many people find the acronym ‘S.M.A.R.T.’ very useful in setting short-term goals they can manage. The ‘S’ stands for ‘specific.’ Can you answer questions such as what you will do to achieve your goal, when and where you will do it and why you’re doing it? The ‘M’ is ‘measurable.’ Ask yourself how much, how many and how often.

The ‘A’ is ‘appropriate.’ Do you feel good about trying to reach this goal, and will it lead to accomplishing your long-term goal? The ‘R’ is ‘realistic.’ Do you have the time, equipment, transportation and other resources needed to reach this goal? Is it too easy? Too hard? Finally, the ‘T’ is ‘timely.’ Can you set and meet specific dates for starting and completing your goal? If your weekly, short-term goals are not ‘S.M.A.R.T.,’ your chances of succeeding diminish.

What can be done to stay motivated for the duration?

You have to assess the situation and ask yourself, ‘What’s in this for me?’ Consider what’s most important in your life. Think about how you want to live in your later years. Then reflect on how making this lifestyle change can help. For instance, you may want to be a good role model for your children now and stay healthy enough to be an active grandparent.

How should you start?

Self-monitoring is key. Google Maps can’t help you get where you want to go if you don’t know where you are. Humans have a natural tendency to underestimate some behaviors (such as how much we eat) and overestimate others (such as how active we are.). Don’t rely on memory or general assumptions like ‘I’m being more active.’ Get in the habit of recording your target behavior every day. Begin by recording a week or so before your change plan. This will give you an accurate baseline from which you can set your weekly goals. Keep monitoring to help you stay on track, even after your long-term goal is reached. With an accurate assessment of where you stand, you will be much more likely to make and sustain meaningful progress.

TIMOTHY CLINE is senior director of clinical training and development, health promotion, for UPMC Health Plan. Reach him at (412) 454-8545 or clinetr@upmc.edu.