What Got You Started on the Road to Healthier Living--and What Keeps You There?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We’re heading into that time of year when many people start thinking about making some healthy changes in their lifestyle for the coming year, and the blogosphere is full of interesting and inspiring success stories that help us see what’s possible. Here’s a good example, about a man named Adam Slack who managed to lose more than 375 pounds and dramatically transform his life.  His journey began after an emergency room doctor took one look at him at 585 pounds and offered to help him prepare his obituary.

This dose of pretty extreme and unorthodox “toughlove,” coming from a medical professional, apparently was just what Slack needed to get himself started. But it could just as easily have had the opposite effect, leaving him feeling shamed, threatened, or simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of his problem. Any of those reactions would probably make it harder, not easier, for him to actually accept and utilize whatever information, advice and support the doctor and other potential helpers had to offer. And as Adam himself said, this wasn’t the first time a doctor had made it clear that his weight and lifestyle was causing major problems. But this time, somehow, the doctor’s very blunt message clicked, and Slack was on his way to incredible changes.

Which raises a very interesting question:
Why was this time different? Was there something special about what the doctor said, or the way he said it? Can we identify what happened here and figure out how to make the same thing happen whenever we want to help ourselves or someone else move past whatever is keeping us stuck in unhealthy or unhelpful behavior patterns?

Over the years I’ve struggled with quite a few very unhealthy habits: heavy smoking, excessive beer drinking, and compulsive overeating, to name a few. I heard a lot of doctors give me dire warnings about what I was doing to my health, and tell me what I needed to change.  But that didn’t seem to help. After many failed efforts, I did manage to stop smoking cold turkey (1983), and cut my drinking down to a “normal” level (1990), but I honestly don’t know what made these attempts work when so many previous attempts had failed. I do know that my overeating got worse as I dropped these other habits, with the result that by the time I turned 50, my weight was up to about 400 pounds, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs, and my physical exam showed I had many of the “lifestyle diseases” that came with the way I was living: type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, sleep apnea, back problems, and chronic depression.  My doctors weren’t quite offering to help me write my own obituary yet, but they were pretty clear I was digging myself an early grave.

But here again, this was nothing I hadn’t heard before, many times. I had been obese for many years and unhappy about it, and had even managed to lose quite a bit of weight many times, only to put it all and more back on again. Nevertheless, I set out once again to get the weight off and develop some healthier eating and exercise habits. That was about 11 years ago. Over the next two years, I lost 170 pounds, and I’m still at that weight today. I did regain about 40 pounds last year while dealing with several major health problems that had me in the hospital four times and unable to exercise for long chunks of time (and don’t get me started on hospital food). But I’ve now gotten back down to my goal weight and am back to my regular exercise and eating routines.

I wish I could say that I’ve finally figured out “the secret” to starting a successful and lasting lifestyle makeover.  Maybe the fear factor played a big role and maybe the doctors who kept telling me what I was doing to my body pushed me over the edge into getting serious about my efforts. But I don’t think that was the key ingredient. By the time doctors were involved, I had already become a true master of denial, rationalization, procrastination, pessimism, and several other techniques for deflecting any dose of reality the doctors could throw at me. But at some point all those tricks just stopped working. It was almost as if some part of me—a sort of inner voice I had not heard or recognized before--no longer wanted or needed them to work.

I do know that, even with that new part of me on the scene, it takes a lot of effort on my part to stay in touch and do my part in letting new behaviors and habits take the place of old ones. I still have to constantly check myself to see if I’m letting those old mental habits creep back into my daily choices, or really letting myself be guided by that inner voice that knows what I really need and want. This isn’t always so simple—it turns out my inner voice likes chocolate, too. But at least now I know that I really do like being physically active, eating healthy foods, and generally taking decent care of myself. When I start to think otherwise, I just need to stop for a minute and listen to my own experience. My body is not the enemy any more.

I think that’s where real “toughlove” comes in. It’s not so much about delivering the “brutal truth” as it is about making yourself take a minute to challenge the thoughts, feelings, and habits that keep you trapped in bad habits, so that something else can rise up in their place. Sometimes, that challenge can come from other people, like a doctor, a friend, or a fellow traveler; you can also learn to give yourself effective doses of toughlove when you need them.

Anyway, that’s my story. What’s yours? Was there some particular experience that set you on the path to change? What helps you stay there?