Lifestyle Medicine delves into the intricate ways our daily habits shape our health. Jaime Hall, MD, of Optimum Direct Care, provides a comprehensive guide on how to harness these habits for optimal well-being.
Understanding Lifestyle Medicine
Changing your lifestyle is easier said than done! If we could all change our habits with a snap of the fingers, we wouldn’t have the need for all the books, apps, websites, personal trainers, coaches, etc. “Lifestyle” doesn’t just mean diet and exercise. It also can refer to sleep habits, stress management, social connection and community, spirituality, and mindfulness strategies. All of these aspects of our daily life trickle down into our mental health and physical health.
The Importance of SMART Goals
If you are thinking about making a behavior change, you probably already have a “big goal” in mind, such as losing weight, having more energy, improving your blood pressure, being more active with your kids, reducing stress, etc.
The hard part is translating that “big goal” into an action plan that will help you make progress toward that goal. Often, once we decide to commit, we are anxious to get to the endpoint and see results right away. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t work that way. It probably took a lifetime to develop the deeply ingrained habits you have now. It will take time to gradually rearrange your life in a new direction.
An effective strategy that many behavior experts recommend is to start with a “SMART” goal. This is a small, bite-sized goal that moves you one step in the direction of your “big goal.” “SMART” is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (reasonable, realistic), and Timely (time-bound, time-limited).
Establishing New Habits
It usually takes about a month to establish a new habit. At the end of your goal time frame, the next step is to look back and ask, “What worked well?” “Did this move me closer to my big goal?” From there, you’ll have the necessary elements to formulate your next SMART goal – to build on the last one or to make adjustments! Rinse, and repeat.
Continuous Goal Setting
Step by step, month by month, SMART goal by SMART goal, you are working your way toward your big goal and improving your approach to lifestyle medicine. As you go along, your big goals may change. That’s okay! By focusing on what you can directly control, you are building confidence, making lasting changes and making a habit of continual growth and self-improvement.
Personal Experience: A Case Study
I’ll use an example from my own life to illustrate. When I was pregnant with my first son, I quickly discovered that the only way to manage my morning sickness was to NEVER STOP EATING. This worked great until my OB team pointed out that the buttered dinner rolls that I’d been binging had caused me to gain the entire pregnancy’s worth of weight before the end of my first trimester.
Something had to change. So my “big goal,” in this case, was to manage my nausea and hunger while slowing down the weight gain. I realized that I felt just as good eating healthy snacks as I was eating bread and sweets, so I decided to make my first SMART goal about diet. Now that I know I need to eat every 2-3 hours, I can plan ahead to have better options available before I’m desperate and feel sick. Knowing this, I went through the SMART goal mnemonic:
- Specific: start packing healthy food for the day. Preferably something I can graze on that agrees with my queasy pregnancy stomach.
- Measurable: 1 mid-morning snack, 1 lunch, 1 afternoon snack.
- Achievable? Yes. If I get groceries on the weekend and cook double portions for dinner, I’ll always have leftovers and snacks to pack in the morning. I can get fruits and veggies in bulk and then just chop and assemble in the morning.
- Relevant? Yes. I need to eat, but it’ll be easier to eat healthier foods if I pack them in advance.
- Timely: I’ll need an hour to shop on the weekend and an extra 15 minutes to prepare and pack in the morning. Each week, I’ll make small adjustments based on what’s available at the store, what I’m craving, and what’s most affordable. Every 4 weeks, I’ll have some feedback at my next OB appointment to see how well this is working.
- Final SMART goal: start packing a big lunch box every morning with a mid-morning snack (yogurt and/or fruit), lunch (usually dinner leftovers), and an afternoon snack (veggies and hummus).
This worked out great to get me through the rest of my first trimester discomforts. Eventually, it became a habit, and I felt a lot better and more in control of my life. As time went on, I encountered different challenges – managing fatigue, staying hydrated, dealing with aches and pains, managing stress, etc – so my SMART goals changed too.
When my baby was born, my whole life turned upside down. A lot of the habits that worked before were no longer working for me, and my hierarchy of needs were very different. Now my big goals were “sleep” and keeping a newborn alive without drowning in my growing pile of household chores and relearning how to exercise safely without peeing my pants. So we started making small goals from scratch again. Troubleshooting and change are part of the process!
Ready to Begin?
Ready to set your first SMART goal and enhance your approach to lifestyle medicine? Let’s get started! If you’re feeling stumped, you can check out a few more examples at Mind Tools.