Chronic diseases are increasing rapidly. In part, this is occurring because we have an aging population. But, it is also true that many chronic diseases are really “lifestyle” diseases. We know that what we eat, how often we exercise, and how much stress we have will impact our health. Most of us also know that the big chronic diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes are related to our overall health habits. And we have all become aware of the dangers of smoking. So how do we change to a healthier lifestyle or help older adults with their health?
Getting a Healthier Lifestyle
When polled recently in a CVS study, about 60% of Americans admit that although they know they should eat better, exercise more often, and control stress – they do not do anything toward this goal. Sixty percent is a lot. We can do better.
What most studies like this do not discover is why. Why do we not take a more active role in staying healthy? With all the advertisements and public announcements, it cannot be because we do not know the facts. We know.
I think it is a combination of five issues:
- Change is no fun
- Our surroundings and even others can discourage healthy behavior
- “Healthy” is an acquired taste
- We think it will be pain free
Change as an Obstacle to Older Adult Health
Most of us like the familiar. We like to be in a state of “normal.” If we are used to eating a giant pot roast every weekend, we kind of look forward to that and a salad just doesn't satisfy quite the same way. We like our routine of playing cards with friends Thursday nights and eating fried food or we can't even sleep without first watching our nightly TV shows.
Comfort is – well – comfortable. So, how do you overcome this dislike of change? I suggest doing very small – almost unnoticeable things until those new things become “normal.” For instance, what if you stretched every day before you even get out of bed for five minutes? How could that impact your day? Well, if you make it a habit, you will start realizing that you are stiff when you don't do it. Or try just walking around the block once a week at first and gradually build up to more till you are walking 30 minutes three times a week. Slow small steps, done regularly for at least a month, can make change more likely to be permanent.
Many fail because they try too hard to make too many changes all at once or they go from couch potato to buying a gym membership and trying to work out every day. Take it slow - but be consistent. If you really don't want to walk one day, at least put on your running shoes and go outside. It will surprise you how making a habit can really work if you keep at it. So, even if every so often you don't do your best on a habit, still go through some of the motions so you don't break the habit.
Our Surroundings and Other People can Discourage Healthy Habits
Our social surroundings often discourage us. No one celebrates a birthday with a piece of celery and a quick 2 mile run. Today, it seems like there is an office holiday or family reason to celebrate with high calorie or high sugar foods every week! Think portions. In the past, we celebrated less often and treats and feasts were the exception – not the rule. Stress is also a lifestyle choice. We can carve out time to go against the flow and not answer every text immediately or be available to everyone 24 hours a day. You won’t lose any friends or stop getting invited to parties if you skip the cake this time or don’t email someone today. Learn to be aware of what is best for you and act on it. A polite “no thanks,” or subtle non-participation in our world’s unhealthy habits can really add up to a healthier you.
Older adults, in particular, are concerned about being polite and the etiquette of eating dessert if everyone else is. This can spell trouble for a diabetic or someone who needs to watch out for cardiovascular problems.
Some find that telling others about their goals can help other people support you through the tough times. Sadly, sometimes, other people may be threatened by your new goals and actually subconsciously sabotage your efforts. This happens a lot with couples when one tries to lose weight. The other person may feel afraid that their spouse will leave if they get thinner. While it may not be a conscious choice, he or she may purposely bring home great take-out food from a favorite fried food place or make sweets. Some people – even friends – may pick fights or cause other obstacles if they feel like you are getting healthier and they are not. It is important to not allow others to stand in your way. Have compassion, ignore it, and simply stick to your plan.
Finding others in person – or even online - who are sharing in your goal and the struggles can help build a sense of community with others facing the same challenges of change.
Health is an Acquired Taste
I have never met a person that enjoys exercise at first – except maybe some kids. Exercise is not always fun, it sometimes hurts, it is embarrassing at first if we are out of shape, and it can tire us out at first. But, a steady continued habit of exercise can become very enjoyable after some time. Not smoking for most smokers is beyond painful – but after about a month, the smoker will stop wanting to smoke. After a year, most smokers forget about smoking altogether. And that first bite of rice and beans is not always a charmer – but for those who have dropped the typical American diet, bacon-double cheeseburgers start to look disgusting – not enticing. I would say it takes about a month of consistent behavior before the new healthy habit looks better than what you were doing before. For whatever reason, God or nature has created a world where sugar, fat, and salt just are more interesting to us than lettuce. We are easily addicted to things, and our physical constitution is such that we like lying around doing nothing! So, it takes a little while to get used to something that may not come naturally. But, you will get more than used to it – you can enjoy it. Our bodies, taste buds, and chemistry will adapt to a new situation after a month or so and whatever your new habit is will become your "new normal."
Misinformation about Health Habits and Chronic Diseases
According to that CVS sponsored study:
- Twenty-eight percent of respondents think there is little they can do to prevent most chronic diseases
- Nearly forty percent of people think what they eat has little to do with whether they get a chronic disease.
- Approximately thirty-two percent of people think smoking does not have an effect on chronic diseases beyond lung cancer.
Many believe also that exercise will hurt you if you have arthritis. This is not true at all. Exercise may be painful but it is not going to make the arthritis worse. In fact, it will make it better. Of course, anyone with a chronic disease should check with a doctor first before starting an exercise program.
Some people with diabetes are misinformed about diet. They think they “don’t eat sweets,” but fail to realize just how much sugar and simple carbohydrates are in many foods that do not seem "sweet."
The worst myth of all is that there is nothing you can do to make your situation better besides take medication. This is simply not true. If your body is dealing with a condition, helping yourself be as healthy as you can be can only help your condition. The best way to combat misinformation is to learn as much as you can about your chronic condition and talk to your doctor about what you can do to help improve.
A Healthier Lifestyle is Not Easy - at First
The first month is the toughest for most habit changes. If you can do it for a month, you will be rewarded by better health, a delightful sense of mastery, strength, self-control, and confidence. Delayed gratification and self-control are also not things naturally occurring in us – but worth the pursuit. Try one small change for a month and see for yourself.
But most people have a little gremlin in their head that actually believes that these types of changes will be "easy." So, they view it mysteriously when they say things like "I am not ready to quit smoking." "I don't like running." "I can't stay on a diet." What they are really saying is they are waiting until they don't want a cigarette to quit smoking or they are waiting for exercise to be effortless before they "get into it." Or maybe they think cake will someday just taste bad to them and they won't want it anymore. It is painful to make these changes - but only at first. The hardest part is just having faith that a day will come when you will easily pass up cake - but it means going through the month of pain being tempted and not eating it first. So, there is pain and discomfort involved and to imagine it will be effortless is magical thinking. That belief that it will be easy is the number one reason people quit within the first week of trying to make changes. What is so sad, if they could just stick with it, is that it does get a lot easier and they may not realize it. So, know going into this that the first week to a month will be the toughest part. Accept that and have faith that it will not only get better, but the rewards will surprise you.
How to Change Health Habits
So, select one small change and do what you can to make it easy for yourself. If it is cutting out sugar, for example, clear your calendar of dining with friends who like to eat junk, get rid of all the donuts and soda in the house. If you want, start even smaller and just avoid one thing such as ice cream. Whatever you do, make sure it is small enough to stick with it for a whole month. When it becomes a good habit, start another one!
Change does not have to be painful or hard. But, it usually does require some self-control, stamina, good information, and a supportive environment to get through the tough beginning. Again, improving your overall health is the best thing you can do. Poor eating, lack of exercise, and stress can all contribute to an exacerbation of your condition.By keeping in mind all the above pitfalls on your way toward a healthier life, you can be prepared to face the challenges of creating a healthier life.