A Single Step To Changing Your Health

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Lao Tzu)

As many of you know, it is that first step to quitting smoking, reducing weight, or increasing exercising that is the hardest. Because it stands for a commitment to change more than just a habit; a change in health behavior usually means a change in lifestyle that can feel overwhelming to us, as if we were approaching a thousand mile journey.

Changing a behavior is hard. A recent 12-year long study on health behavior changes found that even after people were diagnosed with a medical condition (heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory disease, and diabetes) and informed about the needed lifestyle modifications, they did not make these adjustments to improve their physical health (Canadian Health Analysis Division of Statistics). Dr. Candace Pert’s (Georgetown University Neuropharmacologist) research shows that this finding may stem from emotions. The feelings associated with our habits (both good and bad) stimulate a release of specific chemicals in the body that connect up to our brains’ receptors that lessen pain and make us feel good (opiate receptors). We become addicted to our habit on a chemical level, which makes changing the negative behavior for a better one hard to do, as the former is biochemically tied to these feel good chemicals (endorphins; serotonin). Hence, no matter how much a bad habit threatens our health, the brain is saying, “Heh, this habit lessens my distress and makes me feel good; I like this feeling; let’s keep the habit going.”

Changing a health behavior is a change of lifestyle.

We have to start to behave and feel differently to make a behavior change, so that we can make new feel good connections between the body and the mind (Molecules of Emotion-Mind-Body-Medicine; Candace Pert Discusses Serotonin and the Molecules of Emotion on YouTube Video). This involves more than a change in habit. It involves a change in many lifestyle habits that biochemically reinforce the negative behavior that you want to change. You have to embrace the change as a change in lifestyle that positively affects your attitudes, feelings, and self-image. According to Harvard Health, improvement in a person’s health behavior approach is sustained when he or she is motivated and engaged in positive thinking about the change. Many people are pleasantly surprised when they begin to see a shift in their attitudes, emotions, and self-image that comes with a change in behavior. When you allow these new feel good connections to take place, you lower the chance of experiencing a slip back to the unwanted behavior.

Think S.M.A.R.T, Act SMART

Once you embrace that a change in behavior is a change in lifestyle, you are ready to set a plan to achieve your goal. You have to think SMART and set goals for behavior change that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. I’ve seen many people break resolutions to better their health, because they went about the process all wrong. There is no easy, quick fix to turning around a health problem. You have to set SMART goals for yourself that keep you steadily moving toward your goal.

SMART goals come with a solid plan that keep us focused on the behaviors that bring us closer to achieving the goal and away from the ones that sabotage our efforts. People tend to revert to old, self-destructive behaviors, in absence of a plan. Thus, you want to set a specific goal. Know what you want to accomplish and set it. Choose one behavior, at a time, to change.

When you make your goal specific, you are in a good position to measure changes in your behavior that show you are attaining your goal. Plot out how much change and the time it will take to accomplish it, so that you have it all organized in your mind. For example, if you have 10 pounds to lose, you need to plan how much you want to lose per week and how many weeks it will take you to lose the full 10 pounds.

Also, be realistic. Is your goal doable given the status of your health, personality, and lifestyle? Being realistic involves setting a time-frame that assures success. Remember, a SMART plan is a sensible one. If you wish to lose ten pounds in one-week time, you are setting yourself up for failure. It is an unrealistic time frame for carrying the goal out. You want a reasonable and timely plan to assure success in achieving your goal.

The Case of Jacob

Take, for example, 52-year old Jacob; he struggled with his weight, for many years. Jacob couldn’t resist chocolate. He loved its taste. But, even more, he loved how much chocolate lifted his mood. Jacob tried several weight loss programs that promised fast and dramatic weight loss. He’d lose weight at first, but gain it all back, just as fast. The more his weight yo-yoed, the more discouraged he became. And, the more discouraged he became, the more he started to think negatively about himself. “I’m no good”; “This will never change”; “I’m going to die young if I don’t get with the program.”

Jacob went into these quick-fix, weight-loss programs with the mindset to lose as much weight as possible, rather than to create a healthier lifestyle. It did not matter to him if the plan was SMART. He just wanted to lose a lot of weight and fast! This approach set up Jacob to fail. Jacob had to start thinking and behaving SMARTly, so that he had a chance of realizing his weight loss goals.

He needed to get clear as to what he wanted to achieve by losing weight. I helped Jacob to get specific. He needed to establish a clear goal that he could achieve in a timely manner. Also, he had to identify lifestyle patterns that kept his destructive eating patterns alive. Jacob used food to self-medicate feelings of sadness and boredom. Food was an opiate for Jacob. We had to help him to identify healthier ways of coping with his sadness and boredom that could replace the good feelings that foods like chocolate gave him. We added exercise into Jacob’s life. Exercise not only accelerated his weight loss but also gave him a rise in the feel good hormones that effectively replaced his cravings for high sugar and fat foods that undermined his health and weight loss goal (Get Going to Manage Stress; Mayo Clinic; Hormones Released After Working Out). Remember, we become addicted to our habit on a chemical level. If we introduce healthy behaviors that effectively compete with the negative habit on a chemical level, we make new feel good connections between the body and mind that assures the success of our behavior change plan (Molecules of Emotion-Mind-Body-Medicine).

Jacob lost the weight he set out to lose. His SMART plan helped him to stick with his weight-loss goal, change lifestyle behaviors that supported his efforts, and make new feel good connections between the body and mind that led to healthy lifestyle choices and his success.

Think about Jacob’s process, as you take the first step to changing a behavior that can change your life for the better. You will see the change, in time. “Slow but steady wins the race,” as they say. Remember this in days ahead when you feel change isn’t coming fast enough. Stick with it, and you will come out a winner.

If you like my post today, please let me know by selecting the Like icon that follows. You can also Tweet or Google+1 today’s post to let your family and friends know about it. Best of luck in your future health changes! Dr. Ash

(Note: The story picture with this post is from www.bikroy.com)


About Dr. Ashwini Lal

Dr. Ashwini Lal is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in the state of California. He obtained his undergraduate degree in Psychology and Social Behavior from the University of California, Irvine. He obtained his Doctorate in Psychology (Psy.D.) from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago with a concentration in Health Psychology. He completed his APA accredited pre-doctoral internship at the Northport Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center. He has trained and worked in different hospitals (County, State, Veterans affairs) and in the university health setting. He was most recently working as a Staff Psychologist in the university health center at Stanford University and left to relocate back to Southern California to work at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Dr. Lal has experience working with a variety of clinical presentations and is most passionate about working with adolescents and adults struggling with mood and anxiety disorders, those who have experienced loss, those struggling with adjusting to various life events/transitions, and those dealing with issues of coming out and identity development. Dr. Lal uses an integrative approach to psychotherapy that involves increasing an individual’s awareness into factors contributing to their current struggles and working collaboratively with individuals to increase his/her/their ability to manage current symptoms. Increasing symptom management will provide the individual with immediate symptom relief while allowing for the therapist and the patient to work collaboratively to gain an in-depth understanding of the patient’s struggles. This increased awareness will lead to long term improvement and increased life satisfaction.

10 Responses to “A Single Step To Changing Your Health”

  1. avatar Dr. Deborah says:

    Thank you for helping us to better appreciate why it is important to establish new lifestyle behaviors that will help us to give up the good feelings we get from more destructive behaviors. Great Article Dr. Ash, Warmly Deborah.

  2. avatar Fardosa Buta says:

    Great article. DR. Ash…
    We human beings tend to look the difficult side of everything we do instead of looking the whole picture and the positive outcome. Whatever we are trying to accomplish, Taking That first step is the most difficult, and thats what throws off people to achieve anything in life. I hope those who read this article will find it beneficial.
    Thank you for your time and effort you put into the article.
    Fardosa, Future psychologist 🙂

    • avatar Dr. Ashwini Lal says:

      Thank you for your comment, Fardosa. You are absolutely right that all of us are prone to seeing the negative/difficult side of tasks. That first step is very much so the hardest. Once we take that first step, it becomes a little easier. Best of luck with your studies! You will reach your goal soon enough!
      -Dr. Ash

  3. avatar Fardosa Buta says:

    The pleasure is all yours, Dr.Ash! Thank you very much.

  4. avatar K.M. Rahman says:

    I think this blog will turn out to be a very useful not only for medical profession but also for all class of people who are concerned and not concerned about their health and Habit.

  5. avatar Manju says:

    Dear Dr. Lal,

    Your posting was very informative and you provide a succinct method regarding how to go about changing habits with the SMART plan. I think it we are all inclined to resist change because we get used to what is comfortable.

    I think your posting will help many people in a variety of areas. I look forward to reading your future blogs as well.


  6. avatar Dr. Ashwini Lal says:

    Hello Manju,

    Thank you for reading and for your comment. You are correct in saying that that we get used to what is comfortable. Staying the same can be easier but may not lead to more positive emotions. This is where it is helpful for us to look at ourselves and give some thought to whether taking that first step, though challenging, is worth it to our overall happiness. Please stay tuned as I will be writing more posts in the future!

    -Dr. Ash


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