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Want a healthier lifestyle? Start by changing your thinking

Giving up cookies helps. So does swimming an extra lap or two in the pool. But no matter how religiously you diet and exercise, experts say, you'll never make a permanent change to a healthier lifestyle without the right attitude.

Elaine Wicks of Canastota, N.Y., knows that all too well. At 195 pounds, it took a major shift in how she looked at herself -- and how she felt -- to make a change.

"Attitude, and the supportive attitude of the people around you ... is such a major part of weight loss and adopting a healthier lifestyle," says Wicks, who now weighs 135. "If you're completely positive and have that 'I can do it' attitude, you're going to go for a walk around the block instead of sitting down with a bag of chips."

The first step in changing your attitude, experts say, is to recognize that you need to exercise both your body and your mind.

"Dieting and eating well are both an exercise in physical abilities as well as mental abilities," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "It's mind over matter -- that's what drives behavior." Your best protection against bad habits is something called self-efficacy, says Brian Wansink, PhD, a consumer psychologist.

"It's believing that you can do it, and starting with the right attitude that you can accomplish your weight loss goals, and having the power and the stamina to do it," he says.

But what if you simply can't muster up such a can-do attitude? Give yourself the pep talks, get support -- and just start adopting those healthier habits anyway.

"Habits make up eating styles, and eating styles define how and what one eats," Moores says. "They are directly linked with psychology, emotion, and mental outlook."

In other words, changing your habits, and maybe even getting rid of a few particularly nasty ones -- like triple chocolate fudge ice cream -- can actually help to change your attitude.

When Doubt Sinks In

Believing you can do it means you can. Having doubts, however, makes failure loom larger.

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