There’s so much conflicting and often complicated advice on how to be healthy. What does it even mean to be healthy? Our own health & well-being research expert – Dr Joy Parkinson – shares her thoughts on living life well.
I’ve been researching in this area for over 10 years and here’s some of what I’ve learned. While most of these things are what we can do as an individual, there are often lots of other things (beyond our control) that prevent us from living our best life, so please keep that in mind when reading.
Living life well to me means, doing the things I want to do, enjoying life with those I enjoy spending time with, and generally feeling good.
How do we live life well?
Your day-to-day choices influence whether you maintain your vigour as you age or develop life-shortening illnesses and disabling conditions like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. You may already understand exactly what you need to do to enjoy a healthier, happier life: making time to exercise, perhaps, or find a way to reduce stress. There’s just one problem. You haven’t started yet.
For many of us, the biggest hurdle is getting started. Changing lifelong habits isn’t easy, like driving to nearby places instead of walking, or reaching for a biscuit instead of an apple. However, gradually working toward change improves your chances of success. Here are some strategies to help you get started on making healthy changes in your life, no matter what change (or changes) you’d like to make.
10 tips for setting your action plan
Don’t try and change everything at once. If you set some new year’s resolutions, don’t think you’ve failed because you couldn’t stick to it in the first few weeks, real change takes time. Go easy on yourself, you’ve got until the end of the year to get it right.
Developing your action plan starts with setting your first goal. Breaking down choices that feel overwhelming into small steps can help you succeed.
1. Choose a goal
Choose a goal that works for you. It may not be the first goal you feel you should choose. But you’re much more likely to succeed if you set priorities that are important to you and feel achievable right now.
2. Ask a deep question
Do I have a big dream that matches my goal? A big dream might be doing a triathlon or trekking the Himalayas in Nepal, squeezing back into clothes you love, or playing games and sports with your children or grandchildren. One word to the wise: if you can’t express a big dream yet, don’t get hung up on this step. You can still succeed in working towards your goal through these other steps.
3. Make a choice for change
Select a choice that feels like you can achieve it. Do you want to eat healthier, stick to exercise, sleep better, reduce your alcohol consumption, or ease stress? Concentrating on just one choice at a time is a good approach to get started. When one change fits into your life comfortably, you can then focus on the next change.
4. Make a commitment
Make a written or verbal promise to yourself and one or two supporters you don’t want to disappoint: your partner or child, a teacher, doctor, boss, or friends. This will encourage you to keep going through tough spots. Be clear about the change you’ve chosen and why it’s important to you. If it’s a step toward a bigger goal, include that, too. I’m making a commitment to my health by planning to take a walk after work, two days a week. This is my first step to a bigger goal: doing a stress-reducing activity every day (and it helps me meet another goal: getting a half-hour of exercise every day). I want to do this because it will help me to sleep better, improve my mood, and I’m nicer to be around when I reduce the stress in my life.
5. Look for easy hurdles
Maybe you’ve been wanting to try meditating, but can’t seem to find the time to do it. You can try an App such as Calm. Or perhaps your hopes for eating healthier disappear if you’re hungry when you walk through the door at night, or your pantry and fridge aren’t well-stocked with healthy foods. Or perhaps your desire to drink less alcohol through the working week disappear when there’s an open bottle of wine in the fridge.
6. Come up with ways to jump over hurdles
Now think about ways to overcome those barriers. Not enough time? I’ll get up 20 minutes early for exercises and fit in a 10-minute walk before lunch (you might need to turn the TV off, or put your phone down 20 minutes earlier at night). Pantry bare of healthy choices? I’ll think about five to 10 healthy foods I enjoy and will put them on my grocery list.
7. Find your cheer squad
You’ve probably heard sayings like “Surround yourself with those who only lift you higher.” (Oprah Winfrey). Find people to surround yourself that support you and encourage you, whether this is your spouse or partner, your family, a friend, workmates or your gym crew, this has positive impacts on your physical health and mental wellbeing. Try get healthy for free health coaching.
8. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Make a what if? plan. Sometimes things don’t go to plan, for example, if it rains and you can’t get out for your walk or you have a big party where you know there’ll be alcohol and food you wouldn’t normally choose to eat. You can plan to do some stair climbs or squats. You can eat a healthy meal before you go to the party so you can resist the temptation to snack on the party treats, or if you do, you can pick up where you left off tomorrow to get back on track.
9. Keep going and plan a little reward
Is there a reward you might enjoy for a job well done? For example, if you hit most or all of your mini-goals on planned activities for one week, you’ll treat yourself to a splurge with money you saved by taking your lunch from home, e.g. have a massage, or a buy new gym top. Try to stay away from food rewards, since this approach can be counterproductive.
10. Start small
Let’s break it down. Taking a 10-minute walk as part of a larger goal to exercise, or deciding to drink more water and less soft drink, or eating more fruit and vegetables certainly seem like easy choices. Even so, breaking them down further can help you succeed.
Here are a few examples of how you can break a goal into smaller bites.
Take a 10-minute walk
- Find my walking shoes or buy a pair (you could leave a pair at work).
- Choose days and times to walk, and then put these on the calendar.
- Think about a route.
- Think about possible hurdles and solutions. If it’s raining hard, what’s my what if? plan? (I’ll do some stair climbs or squats). Maybe I don’t like getting my work clothes sweaty (I’ll need T-shirts to change into at work).
Drink more water, less soft drink
- Find my reusable water bottle.
- Fill it up, and put it in the fridge at night.
- Put a sticky note on the front door, or on my bag, to remind me to take the water bottle with me.
- At work, take a break in the morning and one in the afternoon to fill up my water bottle. This is a good time to check how much (or little) water I’m drinking.
- When I get home from work, fill up my water bottle and put it in the fridge.
- Write a shopping list (helps avoid the temptation to buy unhealthy snacks)
- Stock the fridge with fresh fruit and vegetables
- Have some canned staples on hand in the pantry (think legumes, beans, chickpeas, corn)
- Cook an extra serve or two of dinner to put in containers for lunches
- Keep some chopped vegetables in the fridge for snacks when you get home from work
Author: Dr. Joy Parkinson