We all have goals when it comes to our health: Exercise more. Eat better. Get enough sleep. But time goes on, and life happens. Work piles up, so we skip the gym. Our favorite sport’s season starts, and we resort to takeout. We start a DIY project at home that keeps us up late. In other words, we backslide into our old habits—until we can’t take it any longer and the cycle continues.
How can you break the cycle? Think like a health coach. A health coach is a wellness mentor or guide, someone who listens to your concerns, asks powerful questions, and helps you create strategies to reach your healthy goals. “My clients are ready to change but just don’t know how,” says Laurice Perlman, an experienced health coach who is a registered nurse and trained at Duke Integrative Medicine.
If you need support or feel overwhelmed making healthy changes in your life, read on. Perlman shares five manageable ways to be your own health coach with lasting results.
Step 1: Visualize Your Best Self
“Everyone has an optimal vision for him or herself,” Perlman says. Don’t start with a set goal, like “lose five pounds” or “get one more hour of sleep per night.” Instead, focus on how you want to be or feel, and let your vision guide your goals: “I want to feel healthy and in shape,” or “I want to be well rested, calm, and focused.” Think about what it is you actually want, and then write it down. It can be small or silly, big or grandiose. Just make sure it matters to you. “Never mind the clutter of what anyone else might think,” she says.
Step 2: Set Manageable Goals
Let’s say you want to get in shape. Great! The key is to break that down into gradual, achievable goals, because we tend to lose steam when we over promise. For example, Perlman’s clients often come to her after vowing to work out five days a week, an hour each day. Guess what? They couldn’t maintain the pace and got discouraged. Perlman says goals should have five characteristics: clear and concise, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and timed. Instead of making a blanket promise, like, “I’m going to work out more,” set a precise plan: “I’ll go to the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch.” Then put it in your calendar, like any other priority.
Step 3: Be Your Own Cheerleader
If you’ve set a weight loss goal, for example, don’t berate yourself for needing to shed pounds. If that critical inner voice starts making noise, think about how you’d treat a friend confiding the same goal. You’d be supportive and encouraging, right? Treat your own goals and dreams with the same care, Perlman says. A simple affirmation, such as “I care about progress over perfection,” can help challenge negative thinking and get you back on track.
Step 4: Envision the Future
Stalled? Consider how you’d feel about your life if you didn’t take action. “Envision what your life might be like in three, five, or ten years if you don’t change this particular behavior,” Perlman suggests. “This is a huge motivator.” For instance, you might think about how a lack of exercise could prevent you from playing with your grandchildren, or how poor sleep could keep you from reaching your professional goals. We all have bad days from time to time, and keeping our ‘why’ in mind helps combat feelings of frustration and stop us from giving up.
Step 5: Give Yourself Room to Succeed (and Fail)
Make sure to celebrate your wins and reward yourself along the way. Try out a new recipe, pick up some new workout gear, or simply share your success with others—anything that allows you to tune in to and savor feelings of pride, because you’ve earned it! Fell off the wagon? Think about why, consider how you might do better next time, and then move on. “Be flexible with yourself. Be realistic. And most importantly,” says Perlman, “treat yourself with compassion.”
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist who writes about food, health, wellbeing, and lifestyle for The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Women’s Health, and AARP’s Life Reimagined. She’s also the author of “Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know” (Random House). Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin