Good health doesn’t just happen. Often, a series of choices defines your health. Fortunately, one bad decision usually doesn’t dictate your health outcome: If you eat a cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake for dinner one night, you won’t wake up with chronic hypertension the next morning. However, if you were to eat that same meal several nights a week for years, you might develop hypertension or even other disorders. We spoke with BeWell Numbers Program Manager, Jennifer Robinson, PhD, about the logic and emotions behind our everyday choices.
Why is it important to set goals when considering our health and wellness?
If you want to accomplish a task, you set a plan, you set deadlines and you take action. Most people are familiar with SMART goals in the job setting, but the truth is they apply to health as well. For example, let’s say you wanted to run a marathon, but you currently only run a couple of miles each week. It would be unrealistic to say you wanted to run a marathon next month. It would be more realistic to set up a SMART goal:
Specific – I will increase my running mileage by 10% each week.
Measureable – I will keep track of my running distance each day so I can track my
progress towards my goal.
Attainable – Is the goal attainable for me? Yes, given my current schedule and my desire to
accomplish this goal, I feel that this is attainable.
Realistic – Is the goal realistic for me? Yes, I have everything I need to make this goal a
reality. I have the support and resources in place.
Timely – I will sign up to run a half marathon in three months and a full marathon in six
What role does motivation play?
Desire, motivation and commitment to accomplishing a health goal are crucial! If you aren’t committed to reaching a goal, chances are you won’t. The reality is that we are all motivated to be healthy. Who doesn’t want to lead a good quality life? But it takes something extra to commit us to those goals. We must ask ourselves why we want to accomplish a certain health goal. If it is because “someone told us to” it is unlikely that we will be successful. Maybe the motivation is to become a healthier role model for our children, dance at our grandchildren’s wedding, or hike Half Dome in our 90’s! What is it that “tugs at your heart strings”?
Stanford is culture of high performance. How do you convince participants that maintaining a healthy behavior can be as important as improving upon a behavior?
Healthy behaviors take about a month to become a new habit, but even longer if you want those improved behaviors to become a sustained part of your life. I guarantee you that almost everyone has had a health goal that they tried for a while but didn’t stick with. Then they asked themselves, “Why? Did I not work at it hard enough? Did I not track it correctly?” I would challenge those people to ask if it was the right goal from the beginning. Sometimes we get too wrapped up in setting “achievement” goals when a “maintenance” goal would better suit us.
What if I am happy with my current healthy behaviors? Can maintenance be considered a goal?
Absolutely! A healthy lifestyle is made up of a series of choices. We are faced with new choices every single day. Should I have whole milk in that mocha or low-fat? Should I add the whip cream or have them hold it? Maybe you feel as if you are making all the right decisions and are healthy and fit. It is still a great idea to set a goal to maintain that direction!
Interestingly, many times we don’t even see this as a “goal” anymore; we but see this as a way of life. Let’s use ice cream as an example. Let’s say you wanted to switch from having one large to just one small bowl of ice cream every night after dinner. Initially, this transition would be tough, but over time it would be just your new way of doing things and you wouldn’t even think twice about it. Your goal would then be to maintain this new habit and not slip back into your old ways. Weight loss is a great example of this. As many people know, maintaining weight loss is much harder than the initial weight loss. (Don’t get me wrong, the weight loss is hard too!)
Have you found healthier participants reluctant to engage in the BeWell Program?
Yes, and we understand why. Many believe that this program is only designed to help unhealthy people become healthier — which couldn’t be further from the truth. This program is also designed to celebrate the healthy lifestyle choices that people currently make.
For example, in the Wellness Profile Screening and Advising appointments, we talk about maintenance as a goal. Even if you are already leading a healthy lifestyle, you still face challenges. Our advisors definitely do not have all the answers, but they are there to help participants find their own answers.
Realize, also, that your health covers many aspects of your life. You may eat right and exercise regularly but find that your finances are causing you great stress. In that case, it may be appropriate to set a goal to get your finances in order. While not a specific health goal, setting a financial goal would reduce your stress and thus contribute to your overall health.
What has surprised you most?
When people talk about maintenance, you actually see this weight lifting off their shoulders, especially when you “give them permission” to stay right where they are and continue to do the great things they are going. Our society is so focused on what’s next that we forget to stop and appreciate where we are.
Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Dorothy Ryan