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How to Take Charge of Your Health Before Something Bad Happens

A cardiologist and psychologist offer advice to break through barriers


Have you ever noticed it seems to take a life-threatening health incident, like a heart attack, before people will change their everyday eating or exercise habits? According to the two experts interviewed for this story, it’s an all-to-common phenomenon.

For many people, until they face a major setback — such as a breathing problem, a stroke or double bypass surgery — they resist making meaningful changes for their health. Why does it take a near-death experience or major medical problem to get people to take care of themselves? Why can’t they change prior to the breakdown?

It often takes willpower, a strong desire to adapt, a plan and support from others for a person to alter their behavior.

Changing Longtime Health Habits Is Tough

“Some people need a brush with death or something major before they make huge changes to their lifestyle,” says Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of clinical cardiology at National Jewish Health in Denver. Cardiovascular diseases are the number one killer in the U.S., followed by cancer, so “it behooves us to make changes now,” he says.

“Some people need a brush with death or something major before they make huge changes to their lifestyle.”

Freeman emphasizes that three-quarters of chronic diseases (including obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure) can be triggered by lifestyle choices. And that means people can opt to minimize their chances of developing them or, through unhealthy habits, fall victim to them.

Most people get stuck in habitual practices and many are unwilling to change. If you’re turning 60 and have been rewarding yourself with hamburgers and milkshakes on a regular basis and dining on brisket of beef at grandma’s house, it’s tough to relinquish that, Freeman explains.

Many people who have developed unhealthy habits know what they need to change, but resist and avoid doing anything about it, explains Marion Jacobs, a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based psychologist and author of Take Charge Living.

Fear of Failure

Overwhelmed by fear that they won’t be able to change, too many people are paralyzed to do anything about their health conditions, Jacobs says.

Change can be unnerving. Some wonder: Will people still accept me when I cut back on drinking? Even if I have to give up pizza and ice cream, yet, will I continue to have health issues anyway?

“They have negative feelings about changing because they have some core belief that they can’t do it,” Jacobs says. Many people were raised on negative messages throughout childhood that they’re stupid or can’t follow through. Because of that, they get stuck and think they can’t alter their behavior.

“If you keep listening to your feelings, you won’t change. Your feelings are telling you that you can’t change. But feelings are feelings; they’re not facts,” Jacobs says.

Habit-Changing Health Tips From Experts

You don’t have to wait for a visit to the emergency room to start doing something about your bad health habits, though. Jacobs recommends the following:

  • Start with a detailed plan for what you need to do to make some changes.
  • Anticipate where the traps and potholes might be along your journey and devise a response to overcome them.
  • Consider getting professional help or enlist assistance from a support group for people who want to lose weight or exercise more.
  • Develop a core support group, including others such as your spouse, friends or family — people who will not undermine you or tell you that dieting or exercising is a waste of time.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation as a way of calming yourself and supporting your efforts.
  • Understand that change doesn’t happen overnight; there will be setbacks. But if you stick with it, you can change before a life-threatening incident happens.

Making lifestyle changes is a complex, multifaceted process with many steps along the way. Freeman uses motivational interviewing to learn what makes each client tick and encourage them to change. Here are a few more recommendations from Freeman for making positive changes.

  • Ask yourself this question: What are you living for and what motivates you the most? For example, is it your ability to travel or maybe the opportunity to spend time with your grandchildren? Then, think about how your current habits might take those opportunities away from you if, for example, you end up developing cardiovascular diseases that lead to a stroke, heart attack or heart failure.
  • Take a realistic inventory of your diet. After decades of dining on cheese, hot dogs, French fries and pasta, it’s hard to relinquish those tasty treats. “Most people tell me they only eat these foods once in a while,” Freeman says, but the so-called occasional dining really adds up to five times a week. You don’t have to go cold turkey on all delectable foods. Tomato pizza, without the cheese, is tasty, and lower in cholesterol, for example. Freeman recommends avoiding processed foods and developing a plant-based diet, which helps reduce cholesterol and weight. And while you’re working on this, Freeman advises you to remember: “It takes two weeks for the human brain to change habits.” So, be patient with yourself.
  • Empty your refrigerator and pantry of unhealthy foods. Some people need to symbolically “clean out their lives” to change them. Throw out your cream cheese and potato chips and even make it a meaningful event to signify that you’re starting fresh.
By Gary M. Stern

Gary M. Stern is a New York-based freelance writer who has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune.com, CNN/Money and Reuters.  He collaborated on Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity into a Competitive Edge (Harper Collins), a how-to guide for minorities and women to climb the corporate ladder.

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