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Want to change a bad habit? Get friends to help

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Updated: February 10, 2013 6:09AM

Many people have resolved to eat healthier, exercise more and lose weight, but change isn’t a piece of cake.

Here are what three experts have to say about the best ways to improve health habits:

Joseph Grenny, author of Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success and one of the founders of, a site that helps you succeed in making changes:

We studied the attempts of more than 5,000 people to change some tough habits. The vast majority failed. But a few hundred made it.

The people who succeeded most were those who relied least on willpower. Instead, they took control of the things that influenced their own behavior. This helped make change much easier. For instance, successful changers:

† Identified people who would help them with their new habits. Our research shows that if you get three or more people who encourage your good habits, you’re about 40 percent more likely to change.

† Shaped their environment to make the changes easier. For example, if you eat off a big plate, you may eat more. If you put cookies on the kitchen counter, you’re more likely to eat them. If you want to change your choices, change your environment to make bad choices harder and good choices easier.

† Learned a new way to deal with impulses. If you are tempted to overeat, use an inspiring photo, inspiring thought or personal motivation statement to remind yourself of the reason for changing. It helps you feel motivated to do the right thing.

† Developed new skills, because new habits almost always require that. For example, you can learn to articulate your emotions and change your mood when you are tempted to eat for comfort.

† Rewarded themselves for short-term achievement. After you exercise, you could reward yourself by reading a book or newspaper in a relaxing chair for 20 minutes.

When you fail, turn the bad day into good data by reflecting on which sources of influence set you up to fail. Then take control of the thing that controlled you. Little by little, change will become easier.

Jim Annesi, psychologist and director of wellness advancement for the YMCA of Metro Atlanta. He studies exercise adherence, exercise and mood change, and the effect of physical activity on weight management.

Starting one healthy habit may help you build other good habits. A little bit of exercise can improve your self-control, feelings of success and levels of stress.

When you start with a very manageable physical activity program of two or three times a week —- it can be as little as walking for 15 to 20 minutes each time — you have to practice self-control to pull that off. After you’ve stayed with regular exercise for a while, you get a sense that you are starting to control something related to your weight, which may help you have a greater sense of ability over your eating.

With regular exercise, even moderate amounts, your mood will improve, reducing anxiety and possibly depression. Those feelings are highly related to emotional eating, so exercise may have a positive impact on your eating.

You may want to set some moderate exercise goals — from walking 45 minutes to an hour a week. You will feel accomplishment as you attain such incremental goals. These feelings of self-efficacy can play a huge part in sustained success.

All these changes improve your chance of sustained weight loss not by the calorie burn, which may be limited if you are a new or out-of-shape exerciser, but by the psychological changes that could lead to improved eating habits.

Joe Burgo, psychologist who wrote ‘Why Do I Do That?’ and the founder of

It’s really hard to change habits (exercise more and eat less) because in addition to the physical challenges — hunger, fatigue and muscle soreness — there often are emotional challenges that are not addressed. So even people who are very motivated to change often fail because they are not prepared to deal with a whole set of feelings that come up.

We all know that the long-term benefit of exercise is stress reduction, but we don’t acknowledge that adding a new exercise routine to an over-committed life also is stressful. You are building in a kind of failure because you are adding stress.

What you were doing with that time before you started exercising (watching TV, shopping, sleeping more) may have been sources of comfort. Now you need to find a type of exercise you enjoy enough to take the place of those other activities.

When it comes to diets, think about all the emotional reasons we eat:- sexual frustration, anger, unmet emotional needs, depression and anxiety.

So if eating is a defense mechanism for you, what is going to take its place? What are you going to put in place of eating as a constructive comfort?

It might be going out to movies, listening to music, reading, window shopping, watching TV programs that you really like. It’s even better if you’re watching them while on the treadmill. You need to schedule in those activities at the times you would be eating.

Also, don’t go it alone. Go through it with someone else, so you can share the diet and the feelings you have about it.

Gannett News Service

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