Dr Carl Brandt, co-founder and medical director at Liva Healthcare outlines his top tips on how to make long-term changes to your health.
It’s halfway through the year. Many of you might be looking back at what you had promised to do for your health when the new year rang in to find that little has changed. The promises you made to exercise more, eat a little healthier and drink a little less may have failed to materialise. If this resonates with you, you aren’t alone.
Making lifestyle changes to benefit your health requires forming new habits. But these new habits are incredibly hard to form and it can take a long time for them to become ingrained. One study by the University College London found that on average it took 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic. In my work as a GP, I have often found it can take even longer – up to 18 months – to make lasting changes when it comes to health.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why so many people struggle to lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle. Obesity is a growing problem and is estimated to cost the NHS over £5 billion per year. Worryingly, 24.9% of men and 25.2% of women are considered obese when looking at BMI. This presents serious health consequences, with obesity having clear links with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
So, for anyone looking to make lasting changes to their health, here are my top tips for making any new habit stick:
Set realistic goals
The first step towards making long term lifestyle changes is to set goals that are realistic for you. Goals need to be individual, measurable and able to be monitored either manually or through a device or app. That way it will be possible to track your progress and easily identify if goals are not being met.
Make sure your decisions and goals are operational. It is all well and good to say ‘I want to live healthier’ but it is important to take the time to understand what that actually involves. To achieve long term change you need to lay out what your goal is and what you have to do, step by step, to achieve this.
Research shows relationships are key to driving long term behaviour change. Don’t try and do it alone. Consult with your GP, a health professional, a family member or even a friend to help keep you on track and accountable for the changes you want to make. It’s important to get feedback from someone you trust and who you believe can help you along the way to achieving your goals. These relationships are fundamental to driving change.
Make small steps
While it’s great to have a long-term big hitting goal, it means nothing if you don’t understand the small steps that need to be taken each day to reach it. Long-term behaviour and lifestyle changes come from consistent small changes in behaviours that eventually lead to permanent changes in habits. It can be small levels of activity, such as walking for half an hour each day, that can tip the balance towards losing versus gaining weight in the long-run.
Acceptance and commitment
For behaviour change to occur, you need to first accept the lifestyle interventions needed and secondly commit to any sacrifices that come with those decisions. To achieve long-term change, it is not just about understanding the benefits of making certain changes but also accepting the short-term inconveniences negatives that come with those changes. For example, you may want to start exercising regularly before work. However, for this to happen you will likely need to accept that you will have to get up a little earlier in the morning. Once those ‘sacrifices’ are identified it’s important to assess whether you are truly willing to commit to those sacrifices.
About the expert
Medical director and co-founder of Liva Healthcare, Dr Carl Brandt is a GP, a research fellow and an entrepreneur. He was one of the co-founders of NetDoctor and has worked on medical solutions to empower patients on the internet for over 15 years. He has founded a number of health services for the internet including NetDoctor, SlankeDoktor.dk, AsktheDoctor24 and most recently Liva Healthcare. He is a research fellow at the University of Southern Denmark and currently works with implementation of online solutions for direct patient communication and lifestyle change. He has undertaken a number of research projects looking at the effectiveness of online digital interventions to help people with their health.