Study Reveals Tips to Make Your Healthy Habits Stick


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  100 comments   :  125,053 Views

There are no shortcuts to living a long and healthy life. By now, it's common knowledge that exercise, a healthy diet, and abstaining from tobacco are critical lifestyle choices that help people maintain a healthy weight and reduce their risk of countless diseases, including heart disease—the number one killer of men and women in the United States. Still, Americans are getting heavier—and unhealthier—despite a growing library of scientific evidence telling us what we should and shouldn't do in order to prevent these problems.

We know what to do. We know which foods are healthy and which ones aren't. We know that we should exercise more, combat stress, stop smoking and get more sleep (among other things). The problem lies in actually DOING it.

How do people change a lifetime of poor habits? How do you lose weight when a toxic food environment tempts you with unhealthy fare to eat at every turn? How do you stick with an exercise plan when it's uncomfortable—or just plain easier to relax on the couch after a stressful day at work? WHY aren't we doing what we know we should be doing?

To answer these questions, the American Heart Association (AHA) looked at 74 published studies on weight-loss, physical activity, and dietary interventions to find out which behavior-change strategies helped people reach their goals and stay heart-healthy. They weren't looking for what to eat or how to exercise; they searched for the specific habits, behaviors and strategies that helped people adopt these healthier habits and stick with them. Their findings, released online last week (view the statement in its entirety here), will also appear in the July 27 issue of Circulation.

They discovered that adopting a healthy lifestyle could boost Americans' average life expectancy by almost 7 years—and doing so is easier than you may think.

A healthier heart starts with a healthy lifestyle that includes losing weight (or maintaining a healthy weight), healthy dietary habits and regular physical activity. The American Heart Association's research review discovered several common-sense steps that helped people achieve healthier lifestyles. Here are some of the takeaways that can increase your chances of success.
  1. Set smart goals. Individuals who set goals had greater adherence to their programs than people who had no goals. But just any old goals won't work. They have to be specific, attainable, and realistic. "Lose weight," is generic, but "Lose 1 pound this week" is specific, realistic, and attainable. However, the AHA's review found that goals that focus on behaviors (such as eating more fruits and vegetables or exercising 3 times a week) rather than physiological targets (such as lowering your cholesterol) are even better because you feel more in control of them—and can see your progress.

    How SparkPeople Can Help: The foundation of SparkPeople's healthy lifestyle and weight-loss program is goal setting. We devote much of our resources and "SparkDiet " strategies to helping people develop smart goals that are designed to improve their chances for success. As soon as you set-up a free account at SparkPeople, you're setting yourself up for success by creating goals that are specific, realistic, healthy, and attainable. Far beyond weight-loss goals alone, we encourage people to set goals for habits that will help them reach bigger goals, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, exercising for 10 minutes a day, and drinking 8 cups of water daily. Framing goals in a positive nature—focusing on what you CAN do, not what you can't do is another hallmark of our program.
  2. Monitor your progress. Now that you have your goals, how do you know how well you're doing? Self-monitoring increases your awareness and helps you recognize when you make progress toward your goals, according to the AHA report. This can be as simple as writing down your food or tracking your workouts in a journal, although electronic and Internet-based tracking systems work just as well and have many advantages, says the AHA. Tracking is important—and a proven key to lifestyle behavior change. The AHA cited one study in particular showing that individuals who tracked their food lost twice as much weight as those who didn't self-monitor their food intake. Frequency matters, too. You have to track, and track often. Another study cited showed that a group who weighed in more often lost more pounds than a group of people who weighed in less frequently.

    How SparkPeople Can Help: The most popular and effective tools at SparkPeople are our trackers. You are in charge of your own tracking and you can track a lot of stuff: food, nutrition (calories, fat, vitamins and more), exercises (workouts, calories burned, stretching), your weight, your blood sugar, steps walked, miles run, and just about any other goal you choose to create (if we don't already offer it). We believe in the power of tracking as a means to stay on track and reach your goals. We even take it to another level with SparkStreaks, which involves setting a goal and tracking it consistently for as long as possible—a truly motivating method!
  3. Find support. Individuals who had more frequent and prolonged contact with others (whether doctors, coaches or support groups) had more success in changing their lifestyle habits. The AHA says that contact can happen in many ways," including face-to-face, telephone, email or through the Internet." What seems to matter most is that people have a reason to come back (to a meeting, group, or website) to get support and accountability to adhere to their program.

    How SparkPeople Can Help: Our vibrant and positive Community sets SparkPeople apart from many other programs. Because our community is so large, support is available when you need it virtually 24 hours a day, and that support comes in many forms: private messages, message boards, "SparkTeams " (groups of people like you with similar goals/interests), answers from our Coaches, and more. No man (or woman) is an island. Support when you need it most—and even when you think you don't—plays a big role in your success, so we like to offer it in as many ways as possible. Our internal research has shown that SparkPeople members who actively use our community features are more successful than those who don't use them.
  4. Get feedback. In addition to goal setting and tracking, feedback is also important. This allows you to understand your current level of performance and set realistic goals to improve. In lifestyle behavior-change interventions, people who received feedback more frequently were more successful in adopting their habits. Feedback acts as reinforcement.

    How SparkPeople Can Help: Our fitness and food trackers offer instant feedback when you track your daily actions. You'll see how your choices compare to the recommended levels for reaching your goals. One feature, Nutrition Feedback, even provides suggestions if you find yourself out of range in certain nutritional areas. And our Community can also help by providing suggestions and answers to whatever goals you're working on right now.
  5. Believe in yourself. The technical term for your confidence in your ability to reach your goals—and perform all the steps necessary to do so, such as cooking, ordering a healthy meal at a restaurant, and exercising at the gym—is self-efficacy. According to the AHA's review of research, programs that helped people improve their self-efficacy had more favorable results than programs that didn't address it. So how do you boost your confidence in these areas? First and foremost by achieving a short and simple goal (SparkPeople calls these fast break goals) to boost your confidence and momentum to continue. There are other ways to boost self-efficacy, but this is the most effective way, say AHA researchers.

    How SparkPeople Can Help: Get ready for a fast break! The SparkPeople program begins with you setting three fast-break goals—short, sweet and simple steps that anyone can do, like eating just one serving of fruit each day or exercising for ten minutes. We start this way to get you used to tracking goals and help you build the momentum and confidence you need to continue for the long haul.
  6. Learn from others. When you watch someone else perform a healthy behavior that relates to your own goals, like exercise, cook a healthy meal, or move past a slip-up, it's called modeling. In a way, modeling adds credibility—it shows you that these things work and that you can do them, too. It also helps build self-efficacy. According to the AHA report, programs that included modeling had higher success rates than those that didn't. Modeling can be done in-person, via videos or even through discussion with others who are doing the desired behaviors you hope to emulate.

    How SparkPeople Can Help: Have you checked out our success stories, motivational SparkPages or popular member blogs lately? All three of these community features highlight regular people like you who are winning the weight-loss battle. Our coaches also share their tips and strategies for healthy living through articles and dailySpark blog posts like this one, as well as workout and cooking videos on the site. You can learn from the experts who are "walking the talk" and from your fellow members in whatever way suits you best.
  7. Accept setbacks. When a person is "aware that it is normal to deviate episodically from the goal behavior, such as missing some scheduled exercise sessions or giving up on the program due to lapses," it can help prevent relapse, according to the AHA report. Instead of expecting perfection all the time, programs that teach individuals that setbacks are normal and can be overcome will result in greater success.

    How SparkPeople Can Help: Fortunately, none of this healthy living stuff is about being perfect. We recommend an 80/20 rule where you adhere to your program most of the time, but allow for indulgences and rest days, too. Our motivation resources offer plenty of tips and tactics to help you plan for potential setbacks and recover from them, too.

Perhaps it is possible to have it all! We believe in the SparkPeople program because it works for the millions of members who have joined our free site and used its vast resources, tools and community features to get healthier. The results and recommendations from this AHA study only further prove that what we've been doing for 10 years now really does work. With even more science on your side, now is a great time to recommit to your SparkPeople program or to share this blog with other people in your life who have tried other programs that don't quite deliver. Help us spread the spark today by sharing this information. The easiest ways to share are to:
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  • 50
    I love SP and for once in my life, I can honestly say I know I will reach my goals. I am choosing healthier foods and trying to reach my nutrient goals every day. When I still have calories left at the end of the day, I no longer think of what junk food I can have that fits in with the calories left, but I look at what nutrients I am still low on and choose something healthy that raises those up. I have cut out most processed foods, which I never thought I would do.

    I have even met goals that I struggled with for years. As embarrassing as it is, I always struggled to consistently floss every night. I made it a goal and have met it ever since. Silly how just checking off that box works for motivation, but it does.

    Now, I need to concentrate on the exercise. That is still such a struggle for me. But I know that once our extremely hot and humid weather goes away, that will be my next goal. I've even talked my husband into getting an air conditioner so I can't use that as an excuse any longer. Unfortunately, they are impossible to find right now.

    One last thing, I just came back from three days at the beach and actually lost weight. I used to go with the intention of eating all the junk foods I don't normally get...fried dough, fried seafood, the best french fries around, penuche fudge, cotton candy, hot dogs, etc. This year, I had one very small piece of penuche one day and a small hot dog for lunch the next...but refused to share the fries with my husband. That's progress for me!

    THANKS, SparkPeople!!!

    Sorry it's so long, but I'm just so excited about what this site has done for me.
    - 7/25/2010   11:06:04 AM
    Sparkpeople has become a very important part of my life helping with more than just weightloss. Thank you everyone! - 7/24/2010   8:11:15 PM
    "eating just one serving of fruit each day" - wow, that would be a serious step backwards for me! I eat many servings of fruit on an average. But if I could eat just one serving of sweets, now that would be a success...

    One thing that frustrates me about the online/electronic food trackers I've tried is that they don't readily accommodate home-cooked food (for example: gazpacho, zucchini+feta, peach and cherry galette). I need to check the SP food tracker again, maybe it's better than the one I've been using the past month! - 7/23/2010   7:25:02 PM
  • 47
    Can't thank you guys enough. I am almost half way to my goal. About 20 years ago, when I was at my lowest weight after a lifetime of yo-yo weight, I told a friend that I had "finally figured it out." Well, for the life of me, during the course of 20 years, neither she nor I could ever figure out what "it" was! She commented to me in an email, after I told her of my progress, that maybe I finally remembered what "it" was! And I think she's right! Common sense eating of good wholesome foods and throw in a bit of exercise for good measure. Well, the exercise wasn't in the mix 20 years ago, as only SP has motivated me to actually exercise! You are amazing! I found out about the SP site from a Kim Komando newsletter. She also got a thank you note the other day. Hopefully, I won't ever forget what "it" is again! - 7/23/2010   4:03:07 PM
  • 46
    Thank you for the support! I need it. - 7/23/2010   3:38:11 PM
  • 45
    Sparkpeople is AMAZING!! It's helping me keep track of my nutrition and fitness and I was able to lose over 50 pounds in 5 months! I'm now very close to my goal weight!! Thank you SP!!! I'm always telling others about how great Sparkpeople is! - 7/23/2010   11:11:46 AM
  • 44
    Excellent article!! I LOVE SP! - 7/23/2010   10:56:11 AM
  • 43
    Thank you SparkPeople!!!!! - 7/23/2010   5:54:20 AM
  • 1960ANN
    Because of Sparkpeople and the wonderful network of people I have lost 60 pounds and my doctor took me off of my blood pressure medication!. Thank you everyone, I know without this site none of this would have happened. - 7/23/2010   12:01:54 AM
  • 41
    Spark is saving me from my past life of bad habits! - 7/22/2010   9:20:31 PM
  • 40
    I agree. This site is fabulous. It if the first time I did not have to white knuckle through weight loss. It feels easier, I have support and I do not feel like I am being punished. Bravo - 7/22/2010   7:19:37 PM
    Spark is absoltely FAB! This is definitely the best help you can find anywhere. The on-line encouragement is great because we are all doing it together. - 7/22/2010   6:35:31 PM
    SparkPeople provides all the tools and support necessary to "make it real." Seeing right in front of me on the computer screen all the calories and content of what I eat along with any exercise helps keep me honest. It's so easy to forget what you eat otherwise.

    The hints and helpful posts of other members who have "walked the walk" help me push through the tough and sluggish times and get me back on track.

    Keep on Sparkin! - 7/22/2010   6:10:07 PM
  • 37
    Reading experiences of other "real" people is helping me stay with a healthy program. I recently bumped up my exercise program to an hour 5 times a week at a nearby health plex that has a full gym and pools. I do a swim exercise class 2 mornings a week and work out in the gym 3 evenings a week. Feeling better, stronger and happier all the time. Follow CatPurry on Twitter and I will follow you. We can give each other tips and encouragement. - 7/22/2010   4:52:50 PM
    I am new to SparkPeople and I love it. Thanks for the positive information. - 7/22/2010   11:49:24 AM
  • 35
    I've been maintaining my goal weight for over 3 years now thanks to Spark! - 7/22/2010   10:59:34 AM
  • 34
    Lots of great info in a package that doesn't make you feel guilty when you lose weight slowly and at a healthy pace.

    Keep up the great work. - 7/22/2010   10:56:18 AM
  • 33
    Thank God for Spark People. This site is absolutely AMAZING. I can see and feel my success with SP more than with anything else I have ever tried. More than that, I now understand where I was going wrong in the past and how to correct it. Not in some "one size fits all" (pun intended) manner, but personilzed just for me. Sometimes reading a graph just doesn't "speak to me", but reading an article, or having a virtual conversation on a message board might get the message through in a way that I can relate to. SP isn't a magic bullet, because you still have to put in the work to have a healthier life. But, it is an incredible tool to help get you there. - 7/22/2010   10:37:10 AM
  • 32
    Sparkpeople is the one-stop-shop to find all these things. - 7/22/2010   10:17:57 AM
  • 31
    I think it's important to note that it's not just the additional 7 years of life, but the quality of life along the way. Healthy eating and exercise makes all the difference between just existing and really enjoying life. - 7/22/2010   9:19:31 AM
  • 30
    It looks like AHA sees the wisdom of what SparkPeople has been teaching us! A perfect alignment - I love SparkPeople, and this article and will share with as many as I can! Keep rocking the Spark! - 7/22/2010   6:59:12 AM
  • 29
    Awesome article Coach Nicole! I'm sharing it on Facebook! - 7/22/2010   6:31:08 AM
  • 28
    Great article! - 7/22/2010   5:56:23 AM
  • 27
    I love SP! This is the MOST supportive online community there is! - 7/22/2010   5:04:13 AM
  • 26
    I agree with Xena that this site's mix of information, tracking, recipes, exercise instruction and, sometimes most important, community support make getting healthier a lot more attainable. Great article and keep up the great work! - 7/22/2010   1:12:43 AM
  • 25
    This is the only site I have continued with and still love. I love the articles, the other people, the new friends I have made, the encouragement and all the exercises that are available on this site. I tell anybody who asks how I have lost the weight to check out SparksPeople. This is just a fantastic site. - 7/21/2010   10:22:56 PM
  • 24
    This article is right on. I know what I should be doing, but I don't always do it. This will be something I keep handy. - 7/21/2010   10:00:36 PM
  • 23
    I just cant believe this site has everything for the not-so-smart and the know-it-all. It is a great site for people dealing with all kinds of health issues and the very healthy and the young and the old. It is truly amazing. It is even motivational for the stubborn and lazy!!! What more could someone ask for? I am glad I am here! - 7/21/2010   7:37:55 PM
    I am SO happy I found Spark! I knew there was something special about the program- it's realistic and if you follow the suggestions it WORKS! Great article- I always find the scientific ones very helpful! - 7/21/2010   6:48:29 PM
  • 21
    I just discovered SP on the 3rd of July & was using a couple other websites for about 2 wks before that .... but Spark people has it ALL ...wowie kahzowie!!! - 7/21/2010   3:56:32 PM
    Thanks for the information - I suffer from arthritis and glad to know that about the benefits of tart cherry juice as I try to stay away from taking medication. - 7/21/2010   3:20:34 PM
  • SUNSET09
    I like #5 and #7 as it all comes from within and we need to know we can do it! It's not for no one else but ourselves. This is such good information as we all need to know and learn how to stick with the program, any program! Hear, hear! - 7/21/2010   2:24:15 PM
  • 18
    So if we are reading this we are in the right place!
    - 7/21/2010   1:51:09 PM
    Sparkpeople is wonderful! All the tools and support one could need in one place. - 7/21/2010   1:49:24 PM
  • 16
    SparkPeople has great tools, accurate information and an outstanding community. It works well (no glitches), and there's always someone to answer technical questions. This site is a TREASURE!!! - 7/21/2010   12:51:49 PM
  • 15
    I just got lucky to find this website during an internet search a year ago. While I haven't always been active, I have continuously used the information that I find here. SP is a great website. You get out of it whatever you put in! This blog just reiterates what a good job SP does in helping to motivate us towards reaching our healthy goals. - 7/21/2010   12:47:43 PM
  • 14
    So grateful for this site. I THOUGHT I was doing great alone, but when I got here and learned how much better I can be, it's really made a difference. I'll be a 'sparkie" until I'm rolled out of here !! - 7/21/2010   12:33:47 PM
  • 13
    I LOVE SPARKPEOPLE YOUR THE BEST - 7/21/2010   12:26:54 PM
  • ANDREA1876
    Even though I have been around SP off and on for years, this is the first time I have really used the site to it's fullest. And I love it! I can't keep quiet about how awesome Sparkpeople is - thank you for all the awesome resources you offer! - 7/21/2010   12:06:13 PM
  • 11
    SparkPeople is THE place to be!
    No matter what plan you are following, the support is second to none. - 7/21/2010   11:12:13 AM
  • 10
    I really enjoy using SP. It's helped me stay on track with my food and exercise. I may not always get the results I want, but I know that by eating healthier and exercising that I'm always helping my body and hopefully increasing my life expectancy.

    Since I've started using SP, my bf's gotten onboard with the healthier lifestyle (something I never thought he'd do). Thanks so much for everything you guys do! - 7/21/2010   10:38:35 AM
    I am a professional in the mental health community. I frequently work with people who have disordered eating in addition to depression, etc. I have recommended SP to many of them because of it's positive, balanced approach. I have been following SP for about a year, before recently becoming a subscriber. But, I have incorporated many of the suggestions, and have been able to get to my healthy weight range, have great BP and cholesterol scores(had the testing), and feel great about my progress. I have made new goals for myself for this year, and realized I need some social support to keep on track. This is a great website, and I'm so glad I found it! - 7/21/2010   10:24:23 AM
  • 8
    I have been on many diets over the years, and have see/sawed with my weight, but the tracking of all the foods I eat and checking out nutrients as well as calories has helped me develop a diet I can live with, that is healthy and low calorie. I had reached a plateau for many months, but by sticking with it and not getting to discouraged have found the plateau time very useful in toning and even fitting into clothes I hadn't been able to wear before, this all without the scale moving. The spark diet is now a way of life for me, and the end of a see/saw ride. Thanks sparkpeople. - 7/21/2010   10:14:34 AM
  • 7
    The last 3 1/2 years have been the best I have done with trying to eat better, exercise, and sleep (conscience of all 3). The scale hasn't always been my friend, but I figure if I had not done anything I'd be shopping for all my clothes at the big and tall shop by now. - 7/21/2010   10:09:18 AM
  • 6
    o ya i agree this is exactly why i tell everyon about sparkpeople.all the information not just bits n pieces - 7/21/2010   9:48:44 AM
  • 5
    In all the years of trying to figure out a balanced diet I can stick to and understand Sparkpeople has done it for me . The meal tracker is the best and my meals come from real food found in the grocery store ! - 7/21/2010   9:41:55 AM
  • 4
    I have accomplished so much since I've been on SP! The community of people that are there to support you is wonderful, the trackers are a blessing from God because I've been able to look at what I've been eating and drinking and I have learned to be accountable for the days that I don't stick to the recommended ranges. I would recommend this site to all of my family and friends! - 7/21/2010   9:29:47 AM
  • 3
    I just love all the information I get from Spark People. - 7/21/2010   9:17:02 AM
  • 2
    Arthur Agatston, M.D. developed the "SOUTH BEACH DIET" because his cardiology patients were dropping dead from following the American Heart Association Diet. He never started out to write a "diet" book, but developed the diet for his own patients in Miami. There spouses lost weight following the diet and people started calling asking for copies of the diet to give to others since it was so affective. From that it developed into a book. The recipes were just to show people that they could continue to fix wonderful food and still lose pounds, so he had the SOUTH BEACH chefs take his food list and develop recipes from it. - 7/21/2010   8:37:23 AM
  • 1
    This is why I recommend SparkPeople to ALL my friends. - 7/21/2010   7:27:23 AM

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