As busy people know, coming up with good-for-you goals, such as snacking on more veggies or carving out enough "me time," isn't the issue. It's making them stick. But, thankfully, there is plenty of good science on how to make your health or fitness goals last for the long haul.
How? Successful changers seek out or stumble onto the right strategies. Weight loss, for instance, is challenging, but researchers have learned that regular weigh-ins increase the chances of success by more than 80%. And when you're trying to get yourself up off the couch, having a plan B (like using an exercise DVD when rain dampens your enthusiasm for a power walk) makes you 20% more likely to become a habitual exerciser.
Prevention turned to the top researchers in psychology, weight loss, diet, exercise, and more to identify the most common excuses to healthier living and the roadblocks that most often get in the way. Then we gave our experts a challenge: How can you jump over, sneak under, or crash right through the barriers? Read on for simple solutions to start today.
1. I can't shake my sweet tooth
Solution: Satisfy it — but steer clear of the supersweetener. Processed foods frequently contain large amounts of high fructose corn syrup. The sweetener is metabolized differently from other forms of sugar, and some studies suggest that its effect on your insulin levels actually prompts you to eat again sooner. (Another processed-food ingredient, trans fat, also may pack on extra pounds per calorie.) Besides, "High fructose corn syrup tastes sweeter than other forms of sugar, which may condition us to want ever-sweeter foods," says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, clinical assistant professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health and author of "Get the Trans Fat Out."
For a healthy snack that satisfies your sugar need, mix some dark chocolate chips with nuts and dried fruit. You'll get the sweet sensation you're craving along with filling protein and fiber from the nuts and fruits.
10 Guilt-free belly-flattening chocolate desserts.
2. I don't have time to exercise
Solution: Start with miniworkouts and add on from there.
If your weekday exercise has gone from sometimes to never, well, join the club. Between a full workweek, dealing with kids' activities, and cooking and errands, it's practically a miracle any busy moms find time to hit the gym. The best solution: Sprinkle shorter sessions throughout the day. In fact, one study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that short-but-frequent workouts (10-minute exercise sessions, four times a day) produced the same health benefits as a daily 40-minute session.
So forget the rule saying you need to clock an hour straight at the gym for a workout to count. You can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, cut your risk of type 2 diabetes, and control your weight if you just take a quick walk whenever you have time, says Rod K. Dishman, PhD, an exercise psychologist at the University of Georgia.
3. Sorry, but exercise just is not fun
Solution: Find an activity that matches your personality
One study from the University of Florida found that matching your routine to your temperament boosts the likelihood that you'll enjoy your workout (and, hence, keep doing it). If you're social and chatty, the study showed you're apt to be happiest with high-intensity exercise, preferably done to music (try a Spinning or Zumba class). If you're a little high-strung with a tendency to be anxious, indoor solo activity may be more your speed (hop on the treadmill and try an interval workout to keep things fresh). If you're generally open to new experiences, check out a dance class, where you're always learning new moves and routines.
4. I'm afraid I'll fail
Solution: Imagine how you'd encourage a friend to take the leap.
If you dream of starting your own baking business or traveling around southeast Asia, don't get bogged down in all your worries and potential barriers, says Judith Sills, PhD, author of The Comfort Trap. "Instead, think of ways to sneak around them." For instance, ask yourself how someone else might figure out how to start a small business or write a novel. "Visualizing another person doing it makes it easier to grasp that change is possible," says Sills.
5. It's too late to start something new
Solution: Embrace discomfort—at least temporarily.
Change is hard, but perpetual dissatisfaction is no picnic either. "You won't make any real progress unless you're willing to be temporarily uncomfortable," says Robert Leahy, PhD, a clinical professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of The Worry Cure. "Taking one step backward from your easy life is the first step forward." You may even learn that what you thought would be excruciating (putting your house up for sale, having a one-on-one with your boss or partner) isn't nearly as unpleasant as you thought.
6. I don't have the willpower
Solution: Don't aim to be perfect.
Years of research on behavior change provides strong evidence that people who diet and demand perfection of themselves are likely to respond to slip-ups by pigging out. In studies on smokers trying to quit, Alan Marlatt, PhD, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, found that people who could avoid turning a stolen puff into a full-blown relapse were 3 times as likely to maintain their healthier habits at the 2-year mark.
A similar dynamic is likely to apply to those on a diet, he adds. So if you just can't pass on the cherry pie at your local diner, don't label yourself a weight loss loser. Savor every bite and vow to have a healthier dessert tomorrow. Realize that missteps are an inevitable part of the journey that will bring you to your goal.
Addicted to chocolate or food? 13 signs you're obsessed with food.
7. I nosh when I'm depressed. Or bored.
Solution: Outsmart your emotional eating habit.
"Focusing on why you engage in emotional eating implies that there's a deep psychological problem," says Gary Foster, PhD, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University. "But for most people, emotional eating is simply a bad habit." To break the cycle, look at what you're usually doing when your emotional munchies hit—and change the pattern. If crankiness makes you chow down on chips while sorting through the mail after work, don't sort through the mail right after work. Throw a leash on your dog and go for a walk instead. Or eat whole grain crackers and an apple before you leave the office so you're not cranky and ravenous when you get home.
8. I always gain the weight back!
Solution: Weigh yourself daily.
In an 18-month study of 314 volunteers who'd shed 20% of their body weight, researcher Rena Wing, PhD, and colleagues at the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, RI, found that daily maintenance is key. Participants who got on the scales every day were 82% more likely than others to keep the weight loss off.
9. My libido went MIA
Solution: Lower your standards.
So you're not exploding with desire? So what? Studies show that many women who report a lack of interest in sex respond just fine once they're in the midst. "Women assume that mental desire must precede physical arousal, and that if the desire isn't there, well, they must not like sex," says marital therapist Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage. "But for many women, that's not true." The next time your husband approaches you, just do it. "See if the light bulb goes on."
40 Things you should know about sex before age 40.
One common libido dampener for women who are years into a relationship: comparing their desire with the drive they felt in the early days of the union. "Don't wait for fireworks," Weiner-Davis says. "Work with the embers. You have to find out what you need to feel sexier. Go out and buy new underwear—not for him, but for you."
10. I'm exhausted—who has energy for sex?
Solution: Don't make sex a cost-benefit analysis.
"Asking yourself, Do I get 7 hours of sleep tonight or do I have sex? does not lead to passion," says psychologist Kathryn Hall, PhD, author of Reclaiming Your Sexual Self: How You Can Bring Desire Back into Your Life. "Sex ends up being quick and efficient, and women's orgasms—more than men's—become compromised." Every now and then, Hall says, forget the laundry and other tasks, go to bed half an hour earlier, and make sex the priority.
11. I get enough sleep, but I'm always tired
Solution: Check your thyroid or iron level.
A sluggish thyroid, the organ at the base of your neck that regulates metabolism, is a common energy sapper among women over age 50, says Lynne Kirk, MD, professor of general internal medicine at the UT Southwestern Medical Center. More than 5% of all 50-plus females have signs of a failing thyroid, Kirk says, but the problem is frequently overlooked by doctors. "Have a blood test to screen for hypothyroidism every 5 to 10 years after the age of 50," she recommends. If you're pre-menopausal, get checked for anemia—a common cause of fatigue in younger women.
Tired all the time? It could be more serious than you think.