How Moms Can Create Healthy Habits That Stick
After giving birth to two children just 16 months apart, I had a lot of work to do to get back to my true self. But I was so busy with the kids that making my health a priority got pushed to the back burner.
Then I saw a movie about a baby gorilla that lost his mom and struggled to survive without her. It made me think about what my children would do without me, and it suddenly became clear how important my health was to their well-being. I decided to shift diet and exercise to the top of my priorities — for the sake of my whole family.
The Importance of Repetition
Any time you make a change, it can be hard to make it stick. We often start out excited and focused on our goals, but then we skip a day here or there. Life gets in the way; pretty soon, we’re right back at the beginning, without ever seeing any real progress. Repetition is the key to beating this pitfall.
Doing something over and over again helps us transform a behavior into a habit. It takes decision making out of the equation so the activity becomes second nature. Psychologists call this automaticity — doing something automatically without thinking about it or having to put forth effort. One study showed that the average time for an activity to reach automaticity is two months. You may initially need to remind yourself of your goals to stay motivated, but after several weeks, the habit becomes second nature.
3 Tips to Help You Stick with It
When you’re trying to implement healthy habits, the first few weeks of change are always the most difficult. Whether you’re trying to eliminate something like sugar or carbohydrates or add something new like exercising, it takes commitment until automaticity kicks in. Here are some tactics to boost your chances of success:
1. Choose Attainable Goals
Pick new habits that are realistic for you. Don’t be so strict that your actions are unsustainable. Weight loss is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to be able to keep your pace.
The newest American Heart Association exercise guidelines suggest 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity a day, six days a week, to manage body weight; they recommend 60 to 90 minutes of intense physical activity to sustain weight loss. I know very few physicians who can handle that exercise load. How could we expect it from our patients?
Instead of 60 minutes of exercise six times a week, start with 30 minutes a day for five days a week. After six to nine months, increase it to 45 minutes. Increasing your cardiovascular exercise from zero to 30 minutes will still have huge health benefits.
When it comes to losing weight, set small, attainable goals to keep your motivation high. If you want to lose 50 pounds, focus on the first 10 to start, and celebrate each subsequent 10-pound loss.
If you decide to add diet restrictions, be reasonable. Avoiding sugar is phenomenal, but if you go to a kid’s birthday party and there’s chocolate cake, eat some! Just take two bites instead of a whole piece. That way, you can still participate and get a taste of indulgence without feeling guilty. Recognize that the old you would have eaten the entire piece, and the new you just saved 500 calories!
2. Pay Attention to How You Feel
You may start out with the singular goal of looking good, but when you’re a few weeks in, take notice of how you feel as well. If you’re sticking to your repetitive plan, you’ll be sleeping better, enjoying more energy, and feeling less moody or irritable. These changes lead to an overall sense of well-being. Take note of the positive effects, and use them as extra motivation to stick with the changes you’ve made.
3. Eat Often; Eat Right
This is especially difficult for moms who are frequently surrounded by “kid food” that tends to be high in carbohydrates. If you’re famished, you’re much more likely to dig into the mac and cheese that’s somehow always available.
The solution to maintaining your self-control is to have little snacks about every three hours to avoid true hunger. If you have a busy schedule, carry portable snacks with you at all times. This includes raw almonds, high-quality protein bars, hardboiled eggs, apples with cheese, and any other low-sugar options you can come up with.
While I believe in all of this advice, the truth is that none of it will help you if you don’t truly understand the importance of healthy habits. You have to shift your mindset from one of guilt to one of service. My kids need me, and they deserve to have me at my best. So instead of feeling bad when I disappear for an hour to exercise, I understand that it’s something I’m doing for them, not to them. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.
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