Once established, lifestyle habits – including what and how much we eat and drink, how much we sit and how much we move – become so enmeshed with our day-to-day living, that it can be hard to imagine living any other way. Some might think that when a health scare or other “flashing lights” point at how a healthy lifestyle could make a significant difference and improve quality of life, changing habits would become easy. Not so, for many people.
How can you create a “new normal”?
In this, the final section of my video interview with Maura Harrigan, MS, RD, CSO, you’ll hear what she’s learned through years of working one-on-one with cancer survivors. Yes, even cancer survivors, having faced one of the most-feared medical diagnoses, turn out to have as much trouble as everyone else adopting healthy eating habits and regular physical activity, even though research increasingly shows the difference it can make.
Maura Harrigan is a registered dietitian who is a board-certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition. Ms. Harrigan is a research associate at the Yale School of Public Health, and Nutrition Director of the Cancer Survivorship Clinic at Yale Cancer Center. Since the last section of my Smart Bytes® interview with Ms. Harrigan, the Lifestyle, Exercise and Nutrition (LEAN) Study team at Yale received a lot of attention at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting sharing exciting findings about potential benefits of lifestyle change in breast cancer survivors.
You don’t need to be a cancer survivor to feel “stuck” in habits. Following the video, read on for a checklist that summarizes research-supported tips on creating healthful eating and other lifestyle choices relevant to us all.
Creating a New Normal
We often blame the special occasion interruptions in our lives for lack of progress in reaching health or weight goals. Yet studies show that for many people, it’s our daily habits – what feels like “normal” to us – that have greater overall influence.
Simply resolving to “do better” is unlikely to solve this problem. Instead, try these steps, some research-tested, others from practical experience of professionals based on their work with thousands of patients.
Four steps validated by research and experience form a foundation for habit change, according to psychologist Maria Buckley, PhD, of Brown University. (At the 2013 American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation annual meeting, Dr. Buckley and I spoke to cardiac rehab professionals in a joint presentation, Nutrition Strategies for Weight Management, and Behavioral Interventions to Make Them Work.)
- Change your environment: Change your surroundings at home, and as possible at work, to make healthier choices the easier choices. For example, use a grocery list form to help you keep healthy foods in stock, including some that provide “back-up” meals that can be pulled together quickly when your day’s timing gets thrown off. Consider carefully what foods you want to keep on hand all the time; perhaps bringing some less-healthy options in only for specific occasions, or at least storing them off the counters in a cabinet where you won’t see them every day. Keep walking shoes in the car, so you can grab even a few moments for a quick walk while waiting for someone. Think about what habits you’d like to adopt, and try out different ways to make them require less effort.
- Keep track of your progress: Whether on a paper list or a smart phone app, tracking your behavior is long established as a powerful aid to habit change. Many of my nutrition counseling clients resisted this technique, in part because it can be tedious, but in part because they’d say it only made them feel worse about themselves. You can make tracking easier by creating a checklist of only one or two behaviors at a time, and simply check off each day whether you met that specific goal. To make this work, you need to identify clearly what meets the goal. For many of my clients, resistance stemmed more from negative self-talk when tracking drew attention to what they saw as more “failure”. Setting perfectionistic goals can set you up for such problems. I always tried to help my clients move from seeing tracking as a sort of report card evaluating whether they were “good” or “bad”, instead seeing it as an evaluation of various strategies we tried. In other words, use tracking to identify which steps are the best at helping you implement healthy habits.
- Bolster self-efficacy: This is not about general self-confidence; it refers to belief in your ability to adopt a specific behavior. If there are skills you need to learn to plan meals, cook, or become more active, find the people or sources to teach you. Beyond that, focus on each small success building toward larger success; dwelling on failures is a road to nowhere.
- Build social support: Family, friends, co-workers and your health care team can all provide support, which is a key element to progress. Just don’t expect people to read your mind; ask for what you need. If some people are not willing or able to support you, find others, including local and online support groups, who will.
Four standout tips among the many Maura Harrigan, MS, RD, CSO, shared in our interview come from research and experience addressing cancer survivors’ unique needs.
- Re-orient your mindset: Embrace the understanding that self-care is not selfish. It’s an essential element in creating a lifestyle that allows you to live the life you want to live, including caring for those you love. (Think of the instructions before every airline flight: Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.)
- Reconsider and renegotiate “shoulds”: If you have taken on certain tasks for many years, as time changes, it is good and appropriate to reevaluate now and then, letting some tasks go, and allowing others to pick up some.
- Be smart about fatigue: Research is showing more and more harm from lack of sleep, so if fatigue is also getting in your way of healthy habits, you’ve got multiple reasons to set your alarm to tell you to go to bed earlier. Cancer-related fatigue is unique, though: an intense exhaustion that doesn’t improve with more sleep. As you hear in Ms. Harrigan’s interview, however, you can cut back on excessive commitments and “take the edge off” this fatigue by eating regularly and skipping the temptation to use sweets as a quick fix for energy.
- Shift focus on physical activity: As something you can do every day to provide multiple health benefits, find at least a few minutes to walk or enjoy some other activity for the health and energy boost it can provide. Although physical activity does help avoid weight gain, for most people, mentally separating physical activity from weight control efforts seems to support a more helpful outlook.
Aim for flexible, rather than rigid, restraint as you work to create your new normal. These terms are often used in relation to weight control, but this earlier Smart Bytes® post about Flexible vs. Rigid Mindset offers tips likely relevant to many of the habits you are trying to adopt.
My sincere thanks to Maura Harrigan for all the valuable insights she shared throughout this four-part interview series. What’s next? In upcoming editions of Smart Bytes®, we’ll be looking at other reasons for establishing a “new normal”, exploring the latest on metabolic syndrome and prediabetes. We’ll also take a further look at pedometers, a tool Maura identified as a key element of change in her work, discussing more research and sharing some personal stories – and even offering an opportunity for Smart Bytes® readers to win a free research-quality pedometer of their own.
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Article by speaker and author @KarenCollinsRD