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Facing the challenge of lifestyle changes

Your healthcare team may suggest you quit smoking, exercise more, eat healthier, drink less alcohol, or take new medications. Changing behaviour can be hard — almost everyone who has ever tried to diet or quit smoking knows this! This is true even when you know your health depends on change.

Typical barriers to change

  • You do not know why or how you need to change.
  • You enjoy things the way they are.
  • Your habits and routines are tied up with other people. If they don’t change, how can you?
  • You are addicted to tobacco, alcohol, high-fat foods or sweets and do not know how to break the addiction.
  • You have difficulty figuring out what is important and what isn’t.
  • You find it hard to set goals and work towards them.
  • You don’t have the energy or feel too stressed to deal with change.
  • You are afraid of what might happen to your life or your relationships if you change.
  • You think it is too late to change. The damage has been done.
  • You tried to change before and failed. You do not want to fail again.
  • You don’t know where to go for help or what kind of help you need.

How to make lifestyle changes

It is up to you to decide what and how much to change. Ask yourself: “Is there anything I would like to do for my health over the next few weeks or months?” You can only change when you have a goal. So set a goal for each change you want to make.

You may decide to quit smoking, drink less alcohol or become more physically active.

You may have several lifestyle change goals. But remember, change can be hard – especially lifestyle changes – so tackle them one at a time. The following approach has helped many people to make healthy lifestyle choices. It can work for you too.

Get help

Cardiac rehabilitation programs are run by people who are experts in helping you make lifestyle changes and get comfortable with life with heart disease. Programs are offered in person, over the phone and online.

How to make healthy lifestyle changes

Ask yourself: “Is there anything I would like to do for my health? Is there anything I can do improve my quality of life with heart disease?”

The key to making lifestyle changes is developing healthy habits that stick. The change will become a habit that you do every day without thinking, like brushing your teeth. Here are seven tips to help you plan for change:

  1. Set a smarter goal
    Your healthcare team can help you decide which lifestyle change would have the greatest impact on your overall health and heart disease. Make sure it is a change that you feel confident about.

    When you have your goal, make it into a SMARTER goal:

    •  Specific: Vague goals produce vague results. Know what the goal is, and the when, where and how of the goal.
    •  Measurable: Putting a number in your goal makes it easier to measure your progress towards the goal.
    •  Attainable: You have to be able to achieve the goal. An extremely difficult goal will set you up for failure.
    •  Realistic: Is this something that you are willing and able to work towards?
    •  Timely: Set a time to achieve your goal.

    Try to choose one goal that you can achieve in a short period. For example, “I will walk around the block once a day for a week.” Make the goal specific and realistic.

    Set yourself up to succeed!

  2. Figure out how you will achieve your goal
    Planning is one of the most important steps to success. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to reach my goal?”

    Then make a plan that sets out specific steps to success. For example, if your goal is to eat seven servings of vegetables and fruit every day, you could break it down this way:

    How many servings of vegetables and fruit do I eat now?

    •  I eat four per day. I will need to add three to reach my goal.

    Ideas to add servings each day

    •  Eat salad of colourful vegetables for lunch.
    •  Make vegetable soup for lunches.
    •  Have a piece of fruit for an afternoon snack.
    •  Choose a vegetable stir-fry when out for dinner.

    What I can do to make it happen?

    •  Plan my meals for the week.
    •  Shop with a list that includes extra fruit and vegetables.
    •  Wash and cut up fruit and vegetables ahead of time.
    •  Keep track of the fruit and vegetables I eat each day.

  3. Prepare for obstacles
    Try to think ahead about the challenges you might face. Develop a plan to meet them. For instance, you may have to miss a morning walk if you have a doctor’s appointment. Plan to walk after lunch or dinner.
  4. Get support
    Cardiac rehabilitation programs are run by people who are experts in helping you make lifestyle changes and get comfortable with life with heart disease. Programs are offered in person, over the phone and on line.

    Check with the Canadian Association of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation at cacpr.ca to find a program near you. If you cannot find a centre near you, talk to your doctor. You can also find support closer to home from your family and friends. If you have a partner, ask them to make the change with you. Here are some more tips on reaching out for support:

    •  Ask a family member, friend or neighbour to go for a walk with you.
    •  Ask for help to cut up vegetables and fruit.
    •  If you don’t buy the groceries, ask whoever does to only buy healthy snacks.
    •  Ask the people in your house not to smoke at home or in your presence.
    •  Ask your healthcare team for information and coaching. For instance, your physiotherapist can give you a safe exercise routine. Your dietitian can help with healthier food choices.

  5. Track your progress
    The more you track your progress, the greater your chances of achieving your goal. For example, if your goal is go outside for a walk after dinner four times a week, a simple log will track the time you spend walking for each day of the week. You only need to track the changes until you feel that they have become a regular habit.
  6. When things go off plan, keep going
    It can be hard to stick to a plan if you are tired, stressed, or not feeling well.

    Setbacks are a normal part of the process — they are not a failure. Don’t give up.

    Here are some tips to help you turn a setback around:

    •  Remind yourself why you want to make the change. Think about how important it is.
    •  Look at what you’ve achieved so far. It is human nature to focus on the things we don’t get right, but try instead to give yourself credit for what you have accomplished.
    •  Start keeping a log again.
    •  Look at what caused the setback. What can you do if it happens again?
    •  Look for support. Ask your family to help you get back on track.
    •  Check your goals again. Are they specific, realistic and measurable? Do you need to change them?
    •  Do you need to change your plan?
  7. Celebrate success!
    Whenever you make a small step toward your goal, pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself. Reward yourself with something you like – like reading your book after your walk. And, remember, focus on the small steps you have achieved. If your goal was to walk every day one week, and you only did it 5 times, don’t focus on not quite making it to your goal. Focus on the fact that you accomplished walking 5 days in row!
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