How do I make a million lifestyle changes at the same time?
June 29, 2019 7:11 PM   Subscribe

I have a serious health problem, and need to do a bunch of things (exercise, change my diet, hydrate, reduce stress, physical therapy, meditate, go outdoors, and make more doctor's appointments). I've heard you're supposed to only change one part of your life at a time -- but considering how many things I'm supposed to change, the one-thing-method seems like it could take forever! I'm looking for books/testimonies about 1) ways people have successfully transformed all their habits simultaneously or 2) good tips/tricks for changing any of the abovementioned individual habits.

About me: I am pretty motivated. I am able to spend some money on this. I am deconditioned and get exhausted easily. (I also don't look as sick as I am, and I've had a hard time getting fitness people to understand that I can't do normal, full-on workouts unless I want to go home and spend the next week in bed.) I like workbooks, and structured programs like Couch to 5K (though the way I feel lately I need something more like Floor to 5K), and apps, and social reinforcement, and specific, fun goals. I feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. I need help.
posted by sockanalia to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The good news is there's a lot of overlap here. Meditate and stress reduction are part of each other. Exercise and get outdoors can be related.

I don't have a ton of advice, but based on my experience, throw the money at eating healthy. YMMV, and if you are excited to cook, you might go a different route. But that's the one thing on the list that you actually can (probably) entirely outsource, depending what your diet requires. Find a personal cook service (I might have recs if you're in the Boston area) or a frozen healthy meal plan or a restaurant that caters to your needs (vegetarian? whole foods?) and buy most of your meals there. Order other staples online, so you don't impulse buy things you shouldn't eat. That's where I'd put the money.

Then I'd try to take a half hour or an hour a day and devote it to the other goals. That can mean calling doctors, meditating, going for a walk. For exercise, I'd start with just walking--get a pedometer and pick a site that gamifies step goals. I get bored walking in my neighborhood so I sometimes get in the car and drive 5 minutes in a different direction and go for a walk from there; more variety than starting at my house.

Don't try to do all of these things every day. But try to do SOME of one of them each day. At the very least, you'll get in the habit of thinking about your lifestyle and these changes, which can't hurt.

And good luck. I hope your health improves!
posted by gideonfrog at 7:26 PM on June 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The first seven items all can be tied into gardening. If you don’t have a yard, a balcony or even some nice window boxes will do.

If you can’t garden, 4-5 of the first 7 points can be addressed by walking or biking to local shops, farmers markets etc.

Where you live in the world (urban, suburban, rural, EU/AU/USA/elsewhere) also matters to some extent.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:44 PM on June 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’d approach this as follows:

1. Choose three of the more habit based lifestyle changes* and plan to focus on them for a month. Three is a good number - not as slow as one at a time, but not as overwhelming as 7-8 things at once. It’s almost the beginning of July, so the timing is great. Start with either the most important stuff or the easiest - go for bang for your buck. Given your list, and to use as examples, I’d pick hydration, diet, and exercise, but pick what works for you.

2. Get a wall calendar (or print out one for July like this). Get three different colored pens/markers. Assign each of the three lifestyle changes a color (say, blue for hydration, green for diet, and purple for exercise, or whatever).

3. Set a daily goal for each lifestyle change habit. Make it attainable but a bit of a stretch. Maybe for hydration it’s drinking 50 oz water a day. Maybe for diet it’s adding one serving of vegetables a day. Maybe for exercise it’s walking 3500 steps per day (and if you walk outside, you get that as a bonus!), or doing a short stretchy yoga video each day (and then you get stress relief as a bonus, plus maybe a bit of meditation. If you go this route, I highly suggest Yoga with Adriene on YouTube.).

4. Get anything you need to track your progress or to complete your goals. For hydration, I like a free app called Waterlogged. For counting steps, you might need a Fitbit. For yoga, you might need some stretchy pants and a yoga mat.

5. Every day you meet your daily goal, put the appropriate color checkbox on the calendar. You’re going for all three every day, but give yourself some grace.

6. At the end of the month, congratulate yourself for all your colorful check boxes! Well done! You can even give yourself a fun reward if you get enough checkboxes in the month to further gamify it (a massage if you rack up 30 or more checkboxes total, plus a new game for the Switch if you get at least 15 of each color, etc.).

7. Now pick three new goals (or level up these goals) for August.

The idea is that you’re building good habits in a way that rewards yourself for your progress (daily dopamine hit when checking things off, monthly mini celebration for your progress) and also lets you track it (even if in a rudimentary way) so you can look back at all your check marks in October when you feel bad for missing a daily goal and remind yourself how awesome you are for coming so far!

* As far as physical therapy and doctor’s appointments, you could approach them in the same way as habits, but it might be easier to approach them from a scheduling perspective. If you’re like me, once the appointment is on my calendar, I usually go. So take a day (this Monday?) and devote 30-60 minutes to scheduling as many appointments as you can in that time. I’d start with PT since once you get going, it’s often a standing weekly appointment. Then schedule tests you have to get run, then specialists for your current medical issue, then anything else (dentist or whatever). Use a fourth color pen to write a big “S!” for scheduling on the calendar or whatever you like. Then do it again in two weeks, or at the beginning of August, or whenever the appropriate next time is. Reward yourself in some way (cup of tea? New book? Extra episode of TV?) for getting your appointments made each time you do a batch.

Obviously adjust this to your own situation, but at least it’s a framework to start with if it’s appealing. Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 8:55 PM on June 29, 2019 [24 favorites]

To build exercise into my life, I added it wherever I could: e.g. running at lunch with a friend from work, bike commuting, going for walks with friends instead of going out. I also found a group of people who wanted to get back into shape and started exercising with them, which is nice to have for moral support.

Food-wise, I found that cooking big batches of healthy food a few times a week helped a lot.

I gave myself a bedtime and am fairly strict about keeping to it, and that's probably been the best change I've made.

You can do this! It may seem a bit daunting to change everything at once, but it won't be long before it's just habit.
posted by bighappyhairydog at 9:06 PM on June 29, 2019

I think one of the things that might reduce the feeling of overwhelm is to specify how you are going to do all the things on you're list. Reducing stress is an excellent example of a goal that needs a really specific plan. Until you have that plan it feels pretty difficult. But maybe you know that you are going to reduce your difficult family interactions by telling your mum you will no longer discuss your finances with her. Or maybe you will sit in a sauna once a week. Or download a meditation app and use it for 5 minutes a day. Suddenly those things are achievable.
posted by kadia_a at 11:39 PM on June 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is actually a very complex process that varies from person to person. From trying to wrangle all this for.. oh... far too long my advice is as follows:

1) Doctor: Do you have one you trust that can coordinate your care? Are you able to reach them easily if you need referrals or follow ups or questions? If you have a good single point of care, then managing other appointments can become easier.

2) Physical Therapist: Chronically ill people DO have MUCH different exercise needs than more able bodied people. General "exercise" can often be harmful. This is why physical therapy exists. You may be able to find some good exercise techniques and goals by going to a physical therapist for a few weeks, then working on it on your own. And/Or you may be able to find a trainer with a background in physical therapy for chronically ill or disabled / impaired people. You may also end up redefining what "exercise" even means.

You've gotta find the people with knowledge to help YOU. This isn't an area where you should have to educate others.

3) Therapist: It's SO important to have someone there to help you organize and motivate through this. I have done in-person therapy but due to disability I recently found Better Help more accessable. I ended up being matched with a therapist who is also chronically ill (and happens to share one of my conditions.)

There are so many moving parts around dealing with illness, meds, lifestyle, exercise, physical therapy, food, appointments. It's a lot. And a therapist can really help you PRIORITIZE! Because you can't just change all this stuff overnight. And so much of it will be trial and error and fumbling along until something works. And you have to pick which is easiest to change, what may be a struggle and you need help with, what appointments should come first, etc.

A therapist can really help. Trust me. This stuff is tough.

4) Apps: Thankfully, the age of technology can help here. There's good food tracking/symptom trackers like Cara. Another symptom tracker is Flare Down. I use a pill tracker called Round. I also use a task manager for goals called Done. AND I take full advantage of calendar alerts, reminders, and alarms. I also write a lot of notes and checklists.

5) Support: Beyond doctors, physical therapists, and mental health/life therapists, do you have other support? Are there people with similar illness you can go to, either online or in person, for advice? Are you part of any online groups?

In my experience, non-chronically ill people mean well. But their advice can often be unachievable to a degree where it makes us feel bad for not being able to just do the thing. Sometimes, we just actually can't do the thing. So we have to find another way around it. Our priorities and energy and time management is completely different and are often constantly fluctuating. To be honest, I haven't found advice from more able-bodied people very helpful for my needs.

Get some people in your corner to help who have experience - whether that is medical professionals or just someone who has been there and is there.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:51 AM on June 30, 2019 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Whatever you end up choosing, build a routine with a schedule that makes sense for your life. If I say I want to do X every day, and I'm just getting into it, I'm more likely to push it off and not do it. If I say I'm going to do X every day at 3pm for 20 minutes, it'll be much easier to plan for and start, especially on the days when I don't feel like doing X at all (and there will be those days and it's extra important to do X when you don't want to because that strengthens the good habit and your dedication to improving your situation).
posted by kokaku at 3:28 AM on June 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think there are some good suggestions above. This does seem like a lot of activity to handle. Apps and checkboxes and self-starting projects like gardening might work but...

I personally do not respond well to apps, calendars, and check boxes on lists in my personal life and goals. (At work I’m strangely great at this which makes it very puzzling to me) I really wish that I did, and I am jealous of the organized people up-thread, but it is not for me. I make lists, then get a surge of rebellious pleasure when I cheat and skip an item, then feel crushing shame when I don’t meet my goal, then I scrap the whole project.

What does work for me is making a commitment with either money or another person at a specific time. For example, a doctor or therapist appointment. Or a workout that I have registered for and paid in advance. The idea of disappointing a person or giving up a $10 class registration is more motivating.

It is my dream to have a personal trainer, sadly beyond my means right now. My friend who had a massively weakened body after serious cancer treatment signed up for personal training once a week. He went to the gym when he was barely able to lift a paper clip and now, ten years later and cancer free, he has an impressively conditioned body and no remaining health issues.

You can also just pay for physical therapy or “sports therapy” outside of the whole doctor-diagnosis-referral-Insurance hamster wheel. Spouse-of-sol paid for a physical therapist off-network of our insurance because the therapist was good, consistent, and five minutes from her workplace. The cost difference taking deductibles and co-pays was actually pretty small.
posted by sol at 6:08 AM on June 30, 2019

The only thing that has made me change (multiple!!!) habits is the very strong external pressure of med school. But it worked. Can you build in external pressure, perhaps with an expensive gym membership, weekly in-person accountability group, in-person coaching, classes, or similar?
posted by 8603 at 6:24 AM on June 30, 2019

I work with people who are deconditioned. The best advice I can give you is to walk. Walk, take breaks when you get too winded or short of breath, and then walk some more. Build up to 20-30 minutes of continuous walking daily and then build to 45-60 minutes. Baby steps. Consistency. Walking outdoors can check off your reducing stress, meditating and nature boxes.

If you can spend money, book some beginner yoga classes -- Stress reduction. Exercise. Meditation: check, check, check.

Formally meditating might not be necessary right now, or ever, depending on your schedule. You can "meditate" any time of the day. On a commute, on a walk, wherever. Concentrate on your breath. Focus on a tree or your steps. Notice the things in your immediate area. Meditation does not have to be sitting with hand mudras.

If your schedule permits, book your physical therapy sessions on the same day as doctor appointments. I don't know your health history, but the less doctor appointments the better. I know that sounds flippant and irresponsible, but how many doctor appointments does a person need unless you are dealing with an ongoing disease like cancer? If you have a chronic condition like diabetes or metabolic syndrome, you may need one appointment with your primary and one appointment with an endocrinologist and then maybe a follow-up in three-six months? Depending on your illness, doctors might become less necessary when you make lifestyle changes. Lifestyle is a mental and behavioral exercise. Changing behavior can be difficult, so baby steps, and ask yourself how you want to live and enjoy life. Let that be your guide to how you move your body and plan your days. One day at a time.
posted by loveandhappiness at 6:58 AM on June 30, 2019

You can tie the exercise and eating healthy goals together with a pedometer that syncs up to MyFitnessPal. Your eating and exercise are then tracked together and how they affect each other becomes more evident.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:03 AM on June 30, 2019

I wander off the reservation from time to time and my first two steps back to good self-care are always:

1) Meditation, 20 minutes a day first thing in the morning, no exceptions. It makes everything else a lot easier.
2) Building exercise (usually walking) into my daily routine. Parking at the far end of the parking lot. Thinking through problems by walking around the outside of the building. Walking to the store if it's less than a mile away.

If changing your diet means restrictions on what you eat then you're golden. A major benefit to any diet -- medical, fad, or otherwise -- is that it means you have to pay attention to what you're putting in your body, and the simple act of paying attention will drive a lot of good behaviour (including hydration).

That covers everything except physical therapy and making more doctor's appointments. Can't help there.

A regular sticking point for me in the past has been conflating "Get more exercise" with "Go to the gym". It won't make you toned and buff, but walking daily will deliver a lot of the same benefits as exhausting yourself on the Nautilus machine. And as my doctor is fond of saying, "The best diet and exercise routine is the one you'll actually do."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:22 AM on June 30, 2019

It's definitely possible to build multiple new habits at once. As others mentioned, you can also combine some of these. Walking is a great idea since it tackles exercise and getting outside (and reduces stress, as long as you're not walking in a place with heavy traffic, etc), but you could also listen to a Headspace walking meditation while you walk and make part of your walking habit drinking a glass of water when you get home. You could try an app like Habitify to track your progress.
posted by pinochiette at 9:28 AM on June 30, 2019

I worked with a lifestyle/nutrition coach. The specific coach I worked with doesn’t see individual clients anymore, as far as I know, but he has a 12-week online program at I can’t remember what he’s charging for that, and it’s not on the website, but I think it was not much over $100. He works with groups, so you’d need to wait for the next group to start.

He works with making small daily goals. If you find yourself not meeting one, his idea is that means your goal is too big and you need to dial it back. Individual goals can be tiny (e.g., two minutes of exercise - and you can dial that back if it’s too much), but you can work on several things at once. It’s very individualized. This approach was life changing for me. Over time, I made huge changes. I cleaned off my horrible dining room table, starting by putting away one thing every day. I also lost forty pounds by changing my diet and exercising. Because I changed gradually, always deciding what I was ready for, the changes stuck. When I want to make a new change, I feel like I have the tools.

If you’d prefer to work individually, I think a personal coach might work better than a therapist for this, but that might be just my experience with therapists. I do see a therapist, and he’s great, but having a coach too was really helpful because that was much more focused on taking action on a daily basis. The only issue is I’m not sure how well regulated the coaching industry is. I know someone who recently decided she’s a coach, and she has no credentials or related experience at all (and I can’t imagine she’s good at it). So it’s a buyer beware situation.

Feel free to MeMail me if you want to know more my experience.
posted by FencingGal at 10:22 AM on June 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

Don’t listen to advice about how often to see a doctor. So what you need to. Illness is ongoing, constantly changing, and answers and treatments can be hard to manage. See as many doctors as often as you need. Us suck people don’t see the doctor just for fun, it’s a pain in the ass, expensive, stressful, etc. But we do it when we have to. So, you’ve got my support in doing what you have to and seeing as many medical professions as you need to get a handle on this stuff.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:44 PM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Us sick people (though being sick does suck.)
posted by Crystalinne at 12:50 PM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Two suggestions

1. Get a copy of James Clear's "Atomic Habits", an excellent, clear, methodical, evidence-based guide to habit change
2. Install Loop Habit Tracker (or an equivalent if not an Android user).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:51 PM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

You should try habit stacking. You start with one initial habit, one you can stick to every day as part of your morning routine. Whatever it is, you commit, that happens every day. if you fall off the horse, back on it again the next day. Maybe it's meditation, maybe it's a walk around the block, maybe it's yoga. Whatever it is, that's the foundation. Next habit comes after that. Once you've got one or two habits stacked, you associate the other new habits with them. You are building a habitual routine that carries you forward into the behavior regardless of the external circumstance. Over time, the sheer inertia of habit gets you to do the activity.

Trying to start multiple habits at once is kind of delusional and seems to me like a good way to fail. Yes, you want all these changes. You have to put them in context of your current habits and start with one foundational practice, then build on that. Once you have a positive habit in place as the new normal, the next change comes easier especially with a history of positive change underlying the next step.

Good luck!
posted by diode at 3:16 PM on June 30, 2019

Best answer: Prioritize exercise first.

Get a personal trainer (I recommend doing this at a boxing gym which training can be cheaper, there's a wide range of abilities, and people are there to work not show off) or join a small fitness group that will hold you accountable, and commit to going at least 3 -5 days a week for 6 weeks. Write down all your other goals but make your biggest commitment to exercise first. If you stick with this, everything else will follow more easily.

Really, all these other things are important too, but exercise will change your brain and your physiology and your routines in ways that will make the other changes much more do-able.
posted by latkes at 4:46 PM on June 30, 2019

I love many of the suggestions above (the colored checkboxes would really work for me so I might have to try that one) but wanted to echo the idea of outdoor walks.

I just finished up a walk in a gorgeous foresty park near my house. I only had 10 spare minutes so I walked for 10 minutes and did a grounding meditation.* My morning stress evaporated and I'm now planning to squeeze in a nature walk every day this week. Carry some water and that's five of your goals at once.

* Notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you smell, and one thing you can taste.
posted by Threeve at 9:47 AM on July 1, 2019

Best answer: I would start with exercise, as that will help force diet changes; if you're working out, your appetite will change.

Exercise literally reduces stress on it's own, so it's a two-for-one.
Exercise gets easier if you're hydrated, as well, so there's a motivational loop.
Solo exercise can sure-as-hell be meditative.
Exercise can be performed outdoors, or at least, significant chunks of it.

If you go the personal trainer route, I'd generally avoid trainers at large corporate gyms, and focus on tiny gyms; they're far, far more likely to listen to you, and if they're able to pay for their own private space, they're not likely crap. (I got a certification to be a personal trainer once within 24 hours; it's... not hard to work in many big box gyms.) One test here is "does the coach often give nutrition advice to clients", and you probably want that answer to be yes.

That said, you mentioned couch to 5k, and the desire for floor to 5k. Do couch to 5k, but at 1/3rd the normal pace; repeat week 1 twice. Repeat week 2 twice. And so on.
posted by talldean at 5:33 AM on July 4, 2019

Best answer: Things I've found useful:

* Tiny Habits is run by BJ Fogg [youtube], a researcher at Stanford. Via the first ink you can sign up for a 5 day session in which you set yourself some new habit goals and report on them daily.

* I sometimes do daily emails with a friend for accountability. So far I keep trying different things - sometimes my email is about the one thing that I really need to do, like making a doc appointment; sometimes it's about a few small habits. Sometimes my goal is just to get through the day. We don't judge each other's goals or progress. It might be helpful if we agreed upon when and how to nudge each other - right now we might speak up if we haven't heard from the other in a day or so but that's all. If I'm having trouble meeting a goal then I might use the email to brainstorm why not and figure out strategies to help.

* I'm in a couple of groups on FB. One is a group of IRL friends with a similar idea to the second bullet - goals for the day, week or month; another is related to a specific goal I'm working on and has a few thousand members. No judgment in either.

The key things here are sharing goals with supportive friends/strangers, strategizing, and looking at "failures" as an opportunity to learn more about my own personal habit-building process. If I didn't meet my goal to walk 20 minutes yesterday, then I can ask myself, with nonjudgmental curiosity, why not and what would help me the next day. Maybe scheduling it, setting a reminder on my phone, shooting for 10 minutes instead of 20, walking in the morning when I have more energy, making sure I have my walking shoes ready when I need them, etc.

As one of my therapists told me (not about building personal habits but it really works for everything): You are the mad scientist. Your life is your lab. You can run whatever experiments you want.
posted by bunderful at 6:35 AM on July 4, 2019

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