By Scott Scanlon
The urge to resist change – whether it’s good or bad – runs deep into the hardware of our brains.
“It’s more efficient to learn to do something and do it that way,” says Jennifer Read, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. “And it’s not just humans. Living things like to find a way of doing something and sticking with it.
“This isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you don’t like the pattern that you’re in. Then you’re going to have to change, and it’s hard work.”
While we are living, breathing and willing to learn to make healthier choices, we can change the course of our lives for the better, Read says. And we give ourselves better odds to start, and stay, on the right road when we’re armed with knowledge and a plan.
Here are some recommendations from Read and others that can give you a fighting chance to decide on a change, and stick with it:
1. Change starts in the mind: Joe Biagiotti, 57, of Clarence, who’s on his way to losing 100 pounds by the end of summer, says a positive attitude fuels his desire to lose weight and work every day on his goals. Mental incentives help, too, he says, including his plan to go camping on Labor Day weekend. He looks forward to taking a long hike and to other outdoor activities he had been too unhealthy to enjoy in recent years.
Wayne Kast, of Amherst, who quit smoking this year, says change starts with commitment and desire: “If you don’t care what you’re doing to yourself, other people aren’t going to care, either,” he says.
2. Think short and small: “The longer term comes more easily to our minds because it’s the end point,” Read says. “Quitting smoking, that’s something you can rally around. Not having a cigarette right now, that’s harder. The shorter term goals are really important to have a plan for how you’re going to reach those bigger goals.”
Or take losing weight, says Read. “That’s a pretty big goal, so what will that look like each day?”
She remembers working at fitness clubs while in graduate school, and how packed they were in the weeks after New Year’s. “People jump into it full force, and after a month or two they can’t sustain that,” she says “so smaller goals to start out with are better.”
Personal trainers at Buffalo Cardiology and Pulmonary Associates helped Biagiotti put together written daily and weekly plans to help him reach his larger weight loss and nutrition goals, a practice he plans to continue on his own when he’s finished with his latest 12-week exercise program.
3. Tell people about it: This step helps bring accountability, Read says, because people will monitor your progress.
This step also will allow you to put together a team of supporters who can encourage you when temptations get tough.
4. Avoid naysayers: “Support is huge,” says Victoria Davis, a health promotions specialist at BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York who led Kast’s smoking cessation class. “The worse thing is to be ready to quit and have people not believe in you.”
Biagiotti lavished praise on his weight loss support team, which included medical professionals, his family, and his “faith family” at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in Amherst, all of whom believed in him and provided encouragement. A couple of beers on the weekends is all he will allow himself under his new nutrition plan, he said, and his eyes glistened as he talked about one of his backers having left some wine for him in the beer cooler at a recent St. Greg’s fundraiser.
5. Steer clear of triggers: “If you tend to smoke when you go to a bar, don’t go to a bar,” Read says.
6. Try, try again: Avoid turning setbacks into permanent failure, says Read and others. An occasional bad meal doesn’t have to revert to a pattern, unless you let it. And one cigarette doesn’t have to lead to more, although those who work with smokers trying to quit understand the power of addiction.
“We have people in class in tears sharing their stories, talking about why they want to quit,” says Davis. “People with young children, things like that. And they still can’t quit.”
Kast knows he’s beating the odds. Of the 10 or so co-workers who started the program with him in April, he’s the only one who stopped smoking. It’s gotten easier over time, he says, adding, “I already can’t stand the smell of cigarettes.”
Keep trying to quit, Davis advises the others. It normally takes six to nine times before someone kicks the deadly habit.
7. Change doesn’t have to be costly: “You don’t need a team of experts to change your behavior,” Read says. “It can be really helpful, but it’s not a necessary part.” Commitment and support are the key elements, she says. “The people who succeed at changing, it’s not because they wanted it more, it’s because they did it a little bit every day. There’s so much to be said about engaging in the pattern that you want to make your new behavior.”