Gullage was onto something with her week-by-week strategy. “It’s important to take small steps toward a goal because if you can see that you’re making progress, you’re more encouraged to continue,” says Dr. Catherine Phillips, a psychiatrist based in Edmonton.
Research supports the smaller-is-better model, too. Health Canada, for example, promotes a step-by-step plan to help people quit smoking for goodâcomplete with motivational e-mailsâavailable by clicking Healthy Living at www.hc-sc.gc.ca. And U.S. Federal Obesity Clinical Guidelines suggest that overweight patients first focus on losing only 10 per cent of their body weight, a move that could immediately cut back on obesity-related risks such as heart disease and high blood pressure.
Maybe, like Christine Gullage, you’re carrying extra pounds that you would love to lose. Or perhaps you wish that you could get more sleep, eat extra vegetables or tackle a bad habit. You’ll need a well-defined goal to get you there. “Goals provide you with a measuring stick and a clear sense of direction,” says Dr. Phillips. To set yours, follow this expert-approved planâstep by step, of courseâand turn those dreams into health goals that happen.
Blood pressure check Get one at every physical.
Clinical breast exam An annual breast exam and mammogram aren’t mandatory until you hit age 50, but you can ask for them anyway.
Pap smear Your doctor should take one at age 18 or when you become sexually active and continue every one to three years thereafter to check for cervical cancer.
Height and weight check A change in height may be one of the first signs of osteoporosis. Your height and weight combined are used to calculate your body mass index (BMI) and determine how far you are from your healthiest body weight.
Over 50 years old or post-menopausal? You’ll need some additional tests to screen for high cholesterol, colon cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis. Mammograms are also recommended every one to two years for women aged 50 to 69.
Give yourself a pat on the back when you get the results. Congratulate yourself on what you’re doing right, whether it’s eating balanced meals or nodding off for eight hours a night. Then note what requires work. Do you need to shrink portion sizes to reach your BMI? Will adding weight training to your workout build your bones and offset osteoporosis?
Also, think about what’s keeping you from changing. Dr. Phillips suggests that when you’re about to raid the cookie jar or pour yourself another drink, stop and think:
Are you feeling empty? Anxious? Lonely? Agitated? “Ponder where these feelings are coming from and why they’re arising,” says Dr. Phillips. Gaining insight into your indulgent behaviours will keep you on track and tell you whether you need professional help to reach your goals. If you suspect that binge eating is connected to low self-esteem, for example, it might be time for therapy.
If you’ve never tried to achieve a health goal before, reflect on a time when you pulled off another amazing feat. Perhaps you went back to school while raising two small childrenâhow did you pull that off? Drum up that same determination for your new goal. Also, consider finding a health mentorâsomeone who has aimed for the same goals, suggests Colleen Parsons-Olsson, an associate director of campus recreation at the University of Calgary who helps novice runners train for marathons. “Tag along with her, ask questions and use her energy to help you,” she says.
Building your goals on dreams rather than on reality could set them up for a fall. In one study by Norcross, 25 per cent of the 213 participants who had resolved to make a change dropped it after the first week. Forty per cent stuck to their goals for the next six months. Their secret? They used less wishful thinking and self-blame than those who were unsuccessful.
To stay grounded, list the positive and negative aspects of your proposed goal to, say, start running. “If it’s to feel better, sleep soundly, have more energy and improve your health, that’s great,” says Parsons-Olsson. “But for every change, there are going to be negative elements.” For instance, maybe your running plans mean you won’t be home to watch Friends. Create a strategy to downplay each negative and, as Bing Crosby used to sing, accentuate the positive.
Put your plans on paper, too. Writing a contract with yourself makes your goals more concrete, says Elaine Craig, program co-ordinator of Humber College’s fitness and health promotion program in Toronto. Outline your goals, what you’re willing to do to make them happen and timelines and then sign the document. For additional motivation, get a friend or family member to sign it.
Try these strategies when you come face-to-face with a situation that threatens to sidetrack you from your goal.
Your mom keeps dropping not-so-helpful hints that your new weight-loss plan will fail, just like last time.
Try this: Don’t tell her. Sure, going public with your goals rallies support, but only if you tell the right people. “Notice how you feel when you talk about your goals with certain people,” says Marian Slaman, a Toronto life coach. “If you don’t feel encouraged or supported, then don’t discuss your goals with them. You don’t need somebody negating what you’re pursuing.”
You’re trying to quit smoking but your puff buddies are giving you a hard time. Try this: Practice those assertion skills and keep saying no whenever they encourage you to join them in lighting up. If the pressure continues, avoid them…for now. “We control most of our environment,” says John Norcross, a psychology professor in Scranton, PA. “Be up front with friends and say, this is what I need from you,” adds Cheryl Smith, a leadership coach in Vancouver. If they’re good friends, they’ll understand.
You were eating healthy for four days and then binged on a bag of Doritos.
Try this: Develop a re-entry strategy into your goal plan. “Anticipate slips—they’re practically inevitable,” says Norcross, who notes that when it comes to resolutions, 80 to 90 per cent of people slip within the first month. How fast you bounce back determines your long-term success, so get back to your new eating habits as soon as possible. Norcross also suggests thinking about what caused you to derail—did you eat the bag because you skipped your afternoon snack and were ravenous? Plan ahead to avoid similar Doritos run-ins in the future.