Hero Images, Getty Images
(Hero Images, Getty Images)

For many of us, it’s difficult to get motivated to exercise or eat healthy. But it may be easier than you think with the right mental approach.

Boosting willpower to begin healthy practices and avoid past unhealthy behaviors calls for a new way of thinking – and small steps at first, experts say.

“We are creatures of habit. Starting anything new can be overwhelming because it often requires a change in routine,” said Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy, an author and holistic health counselor.

One obstacle is the “information overload” of conflicting advice on the best eating and exercise plans, Kennedy said. That can result in lack of action. Creating self-awareness about your current lifestyle, perhaps through a daily log, and then researching best practices can determine what works best for you.

“Each person is different. There is no one-size-fits-all diet or exercise plan,” she said. “Seek to become an expert on you.”

Today’s focus on instant results can contribute to a short-term outlook. Sometimes, unless there is a serious consequence or high level of pain associated with a current condition, Kennedy said, it may be hard to stick with a healthy plan for the long haul.

“We might start something with enthusiasm – like those New Year’s resolutions – but the energy wanes unless you can see results. We are conditioned for the quick fix,” she said.

To get around that, she suggests a strategy of telling yourself, “Not now, maybe later,” when facing unhealthy temptations.

But remember that willpower may be an exhaustible resource. Using willpower to do something difficult may deplete it and make it harder to resist temptation later, according to a study by social psychologist Roy Baumeister.

Consider making lifestyle decisions when your willpower is high, such as cleaning junk food out of your pantry so you won’t be tempted by it later or making a plan to attend an exercise class with a friend later in the day or week.

Starting small allows for incremental victories. Make your goals S.M.A.R.T. – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely, Kennedy said. If necessary, break a goal down into even smaller milestones.

For example, add nutrient-dense foods like fruits and nuts to your eating plan and crowd out processed foods. Try different nutritious foods to find what you prefer.

“Make it about exploration and moderation versus deprivation,” she said.

To gradually incorporate movement into your daily routine, use the stairs instead of the elevator and take 10- to 15-minute movement breaks throughout the day. Use breaks for taking a walk, chair yoga or deep breathing.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.

By having a workout bag or yoga mat ready to go, heading off to an exercise session becomes more convenient. If the gym isn’t convenient, find other ways to get physically active. Play some music and dance freestyle. A new daily ritual at a specific time becomes habit after three or four weeks, Kennedy said.

One of the keys to lasting change is finding an overarching vision for why a healthier lifestyle is important, Kennedy said.

“It could be because you want the energy to play with your children or you want to save to start your own business. I tell my clients with a ‘motivating why,’ the ‘how’ becomes easier,” she said.

Try to practice “mindfulness,” which will increase your skill of noticing and take you out of an “automatic mode,” she said, adding you can set yourself up for success by practicing self-care and getting enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation can increase hunger and affect memory and mood. Poor sleep quality has also been linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, which is a potential cause of heart disease.

As changes start to take root, Kennedy said it’s important to remember occasional slip-ups may happen. If they do, keep moving forward.

“Simply get back on track and don’t beat yourself up. Play the long game,” she said. “You want to deepen your belief that you can do this.”

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email editor@heart.org.

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CategoryFood and Fitness