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SWEAT: Get Started

Mar. 12 2009, Published 12:25 p.m. ET

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You have good intentions and want to overhaul your habits to make your lifestyle healthier. But you have a busy life and somehow you never get started on that weight-loss program.

How do you break this pattern of inaction and finally make the commitment to get healthier? The answer can be found by studying people who have succeeded.

Research reveals that many success stories begin with a turning point, an experience that prods people into changing their ways. That “Eureka!” or "Aha!" moment often comes in the form of surviving a personal health scare, experiencing the death of a loved one, losing an important relationship, or hitting an emotional bottom.

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"Sometimes there's a lightning bolt flash of insight and other times these changes occur after serious self-reflection," says William R. Miller, Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico who has spent years investigating how people change their health behavior.

"It's this kind of click in the mind that says, 'This is not okay.'” This sort of epiphany can also come from pivotal experiences such as when you try to run after a bus and quickly feel like collapsing on the pavement, even though you'd previously thought of yourself as in fighting form; or when you see yourself in a plate-glass window or photograph and you're shocked by how much weight you've gained.

The good news is, you don't have to wait for these turning points to occur naturally. You can set yourself up for them and increase your chances of starting on a successful weight-loss program. Here are five ways to do that:

Evaluate your relationships. Focus on the ones that really matter to you and how they make your life richer; also, consider how much you mean to those people.

In a recent series of studies, Richard Ryan, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, psychiatry, and education at the University of Rochester found that when people realize they have truly satisfying relationships in their lives, they're more likely to take better care of their own health. "It becomes more important to take care of yourself not just so that you'll live longer but so that other people won't lose you," he explains.

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Work through your ambivalence. "It's human nature to feel two ways about something—you might enjoy eating and want to lose weight—but people can get stuck at the point of ambivalence for a long time," Miller says. That's why it's smart to weigh your reasons for changing a habit against your reasons for maintaining the status quo.

To do this, it helps to make a ledger, on which you list the benefits of changing on one side and the benefits of staying the same on the other. “If you probe all the reasons for continuing or quitting at the same time, it seems to tip the balance,” Miller says.

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But, if the pros don't naturally outweigh the cons on your list, challenge your reasons for not changing so that you tilt the balance in favor of making the change, Miller advises.       

Consider the worst-case scenario. Think of all the possible negative consequences that could happen if you continue the habit you want to kick. If you want to stop being a junk-food junkie, envision your arteries clogging with loads of saturated fat from all those greasy burgers.

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You might then imagine what it would be like to have a heart attack before you turn 40 or to have your guy leave you because you've become totally unappealing. “The threat or loss of something such as an important relationship can be a powerful precipitating event,” Miller says.

Ask a friend to question you. A powerful exercise is verbalizing your reasons for wanting to change and how you might accomplish it to someone you trust, Miller says. This draws from a technique called motivational interviewing, and Miller’s research has found that when people consider changing their habits, they talk about why they want to do it, how they would or could do it, why it’s important, and why they need to do it now. “None of these elements is enough to trigger behavior change,” he says, but as people focus on these elements, their commitment to making the change naturally becomes stronger. For this strategy to be effective, the listener needs to be someone who is sympathetic and nonjudgmental, who encourages you to talk freely and really listens “but is not invested in the outcome,” Miller says.

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Link your goals with the change you want to make. If your dream is to become a well-respected business leader, ask yourself how your current lifestyle fits with that, Ryan suggests. Will your habit of skimping on sleep or being a sofa spud help or hinder your ability to think quickly on your feet? Likewise, if you want to run a half-marathon in the next few years, how will your unhealthy eating habits affect your ability to do that? "When you connect your everyday behavior with your goals and values," Ryan explains, "health becomes more salient and you'll probably realize that change is really needed."

By setting yourself up for a “Eureka! moment”, you’ll be helping to propel yourself into action to improve your diet, start exercising religiously, or slim down: Once you decide to make the change and swing into action, it’s up to you to keep going. But by making a strong commitment and reminding yourself periodically of your reasons for changing, you’ll increase your chances of succeeding.



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