Use Your Mind for Fit Behavior Change

These tips can motivate you and your family to boost family fitness.

From the WebMD Archives

It's easy to say, "Eat right and get more exercise." But successfully changing behavior -- your own or your children's -- takes planning, persistence, and patience. If it were easy, we'd all be fit, trim, never smoke, and rarely drink.

Yet it’s within your reach to build healthy habits to prevent or tackle adult and childhood obesity, especially if you understand how to get your mind engaged and set yourself up for success.

8 Ways to Help You Develop Healthy Habits

  1. Know why you're doing it.
    When you're ready to eat better or get fit, set yourself up for success by understanding why you're trying to make behavior change happen, suggests Eileen Stone, a child and adolescent psychologist at Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D. Do you want to have more energy to play with your kids? Do you dream of finishing a 5K walk or run? Do you simply want to breathe better? Identifying a meaningful, personal reason -- something of real value to you -- will help motivate you.
  2. Know both the benefits and the costs of pursuing your new goal.
    Most people find it easy to identify the benefits of trying to reach a healthy goal. You may want to feel better and look better, for example. Research on decision-making shows some advantages to thinking about the costs of such efforts, as well. For example, it can cost both time and money to increase your fitness, as well as effort and sometimes pain and frustration. By reviewing these costs, you'll be better prepared when potential barriers pop up as you go after your goals. Being realistic and prepared will help you stay on track and "keep your eyes on the prize."
  3. Plan it out.
    How will you do it? Map out your goals and then break them down into mini-goals that you can achieve. What steps will you take to reach them? "The more concrete the steps are, the more manageable your goals will be," Stone tells WebMD. Write down your goal and the answer to your "why" question on bright sticky notes, and post them in visible places around your house. Keep a journal or a spreadsheet to help you track your progress.
  4. Think patience, not perfection.
    Most of us want to shed pounds now or feel better today. "We think we have to do it all right away, and we have to do it perfectly," says Shelly Hoefs, a certified health behavior coach at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, S.D. But that mindset can undermine the best intentions. The habits and behaviors that got you where you are took shape over time. That means it'll take time to build healthier habits, too. When you get frustrated, remind yourself: It doesn't have to happen all at once. Even small changes can make a difference.
  5. Build on other successes.
    What are you good at right now? Use those skills to mix healthy change into your life, Hoefs suggests. Are you organized? Use that characteristic to plan out healthy meals a week in advance. Or maybe you like routines? Try committing to a before-dinner walk with your neighbor at the same time, twice a week.
  6. Don't dwell on failure.
    We all have bad days with our jobs, spouses, or kids. We get through them by looking at the big picture -- reminding ourselves that all days aren't bad and thinking of all of the good days that surround them. Do the same when you're trying to adopt healthy new habits. For example, if you've been doing great with walking and then you skip a few days, don't dwell on it. "Focus on all those other days of success," Stone says, "and let that motivate you to get back on track."
  7. Recognize success.
    Behavior change isn't easy, so when you succeed, give yourself credit. The next time you go for that walk or skip that dessert, give yourself a pat on the back. Celebrate the small and large successes.
  8. Evaluate your efforts weekly.
    If you are not willing to take honest and frequent looks at your efforts, setbacks and results, your efforts to change are doomed from the start. Don't give up for the day because you went to the breakfast buffet with your friends and overdid it. Make a healthier choice for lunch. The road to healthy habits is not straight. You will encounter bumps along the road, but keeping the big picture in mind and your goals in sight will help you drive right over them. Taking stock every week will allow you to make the adjustments that will help you succeed.


Motivating Your Family to Adopt Healthy Habits

Once you understand how to motivate yourself, you can use that knowledge and these strategies to help your kids get on track, too.

Be a good example. Changing your own behavior is the first step to changing your child's behavior. Your spouse or kids may not suddenly jump at the chance to join you at the gym, but that doesn’t mean your example isn’t influencing them. Probably most parents have had the experience of seeing their child do or say something that they did not specifically teach, such as playing with a cell phone or blurting out a "bad word" in public. The same goes for healthy habits. They're watching, so set an example you want them to follow.

"Just by modeling that behavior you might help them come up with their own reasons to get healthier," Stone says. And your success may actually pack a powerful wallop. A 2004 study reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that when parents lose weight, kids are much more likely to lose weight, too.

Make it easy. Create routines and an environment that makes healthy choices easier for everyone, says Elizabeth Ward, RD, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Get fresh fruit out of the fridge and put it on the table in a bowl, for example, or involve the kids with cooking or shopping.

Find the fun in fitness. Be on the lookout for physical activities kids enjoy, from walks to tennis to climbing trees. Fitness isn't only about team sports -- it's about encouraging activity and letting kids pursue those that they enjoy most.

Integrate small, positive changes into activities everyone enjoys. If the family's going to sit down for a movie, make it a routine that everyone goes for a walk first. If you're going out to the movies, see how far away you can park in the lot and walk to the theater. Pizza night coming up? Get everyone shooting hoops together beforehand. If your family is trying to lose weight, order your pizza meatless and ask for a light sprinkling of cheese. Or order without cheese and use reduced-fat or fat-free cheese from your fridge as a topping, then pop the pizza back in the oven to melt it.


Be willing to sacrifice. Your family will need to let go of some well-loved but unhealthy habits to make room for the new healthier ones. For example, you may miss your nightly ice cream, but after a while you will grow to love your perfect piece of fruit. You may find it hard to say good-bye to a favorite TV show, but you and your kids will never regret spending an hour making a healthy dinner or taking a walk around the neighborhood.

Be creative. Even after you've found a great lifestyle for family fitness, things can get boring, so don't be afraid to mix it up. Be flexible and open to new ideas -- and involve the whole family.

"We all have more buy-in when we get to be a part of the change," Hoefs tells WebMD. Giving kids a choice helps them feel they're part of the process. "The motivation is in what we want to become -- in that picture of being healthy."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Daniel S. Kirschenbaum, PhD on November 21, 2011


Ward-Begnoche, W. The Journal of Family Practice, November 2006; vol 55(11): pp 957-963.

Wrotniak, B. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, April 2004; vol 158: pp 342-347.

Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, author, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler.

Eileen Stone, PsyD, child and adolescent psychologist, Sanford Health, Fargo, N.D.

Shelly Hoefs, fitness supervisor, certified health behavior coach, Mutch Women's Center for Health Enrichment, Sanford Health, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Chris Tiongson, MD, pediatrician; managing physician partner, Sanford Children's Southwest, Fargo, N.D.

Dan Kirschenbaum, PhD, ABPP; vice president of clinical services, Wellspring, a Division of CRC Health; director, Center for Behavioral Medicine & Sport Psychology; professor of psychiatry & behavioral sciences, Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago.

© 2010 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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