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ACCORDING to the January 2010 issue of The Mayo Clinic Women’s Healthsource, most individuals who smoke, eat too many sweets and snacks, or avoid exercise, realize that these behaviors can lead to health problems, but knowledge doesn’t automatically or easily translate to action so, after years studying what actually works in helping people make long-lasting behavior changes, health professionals have come up with the following 10 effective strategies:

1. Assess your readiness — It takes commitment and mental and physical effort to change behaviors that you may have developed over many years, so timing is key to success...e.g., starting when you’re distracted by other major events in your life, such as marital or financial problems, can set you up for failure.

Also, your motivation to change is another aspect of readiness...you must first perceive a need to change (from within) because no one else can make you change.

For instance, your doctor’s recommendation to cut saturated fats from your diet to help control your cholesterol levels must relate to your own values, beliefs and goals, such as your motivation of avoiding the need to take medications or to stay healthy so that you can enjoy your grandchildren.

2. Start with small steps — Trying to accomplish all the needed lifestyle changes at once is overwhelming for most individuals so, start with a small step.

For instance, if you have a chronic health condition such as diabetes or high blood pressure, your treatment plan might include a host of major lifestyle changes, such as dietary changes or exercise.

Thus, if you haven’t been physically active, walk around the block after dinner.

If you’re trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, add some carrots or spinach to your pasta sauce.

3. Set realistic goals — The odds of achieving a desired change are improved by setting goals and the most useful goals are SMART...specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-limited.

For example, a goal to “exercise more” is good, but isn’t specific or measurable.

“Walk 60 minutes every day” is specific, but it may not be attainable or relevant to your ability.

Instead, a SMART goal might be to walk 30 minutes a day, five days a week...or, if you’re just starting out, to take that walk around the block after dinner, several nights a week.

Also, a series of short-term or “time-limited” goals can move you to a larger, long-term goal.

For instance, initially, your goal might be to substitute fruit for a sugary dessert twice a week.

After achieving that, you might set a new goal of eating fruit for dessert five days a week.

4. Believe you can do it — You need to feel confident that you can do it, in order to successfully change.

Otherwise, if you see your health or behavior as something beyond your control (“There’s nothing I can do about it” or “I’m just made this way genetically”), you might not see how you could possibly change it or believe that the change will truly benefit your health, adds the letter.

You may need to gather information about the change you’re making, such as talking to a friend who’s already got a walking program in place about how to get started and stay motivated.

Eventually, as you successfully take small steps toward your new behavior, you may feel more confident.

5. Keep track of your behavior — “Self-monitoring” (observing and recording your behavior), which includes weighing yourself, keeping a food or exercise diary, or charting your blood sugar, can help promote change.

Individuals who self-monitor their food intake have been found to lose twice as much weight as those who don’t keep track of what they eat.

Also, individuals who weigh themselves regularly (though not necessarily daily) are more successful at losing weight and keeping it off.

6. Solve problems — You’ll need strategies for solving problems as they arise (because they inevitably will), which include several steps: identifying and defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, evaluating the pros and cons of the solutions, putting them into action, and then evaluating how well they worked.

This process will help you overcome potential roadblocks, such as the cost of a health membership or exercise equipment.

7. Get a good night’s sleep — Sleep is very important as a foundation for behavior change...lack of sleep can interfere with your ability to focus, learn and remember, making you more irritable and more apt to come up with poor decisions and, thus, sabotage your efforts to change.

Aim for about eight hours of sleep a night and stick to a sleep schedule.

8. Manage stress — Stress, both short-term and chronic, can undermine your efforts to get healthier because when stressful situations occur (e.g., your best friend is diagnosed with a serious disease, your car breaks down or you’ve overbooked your calendar), your natural response is to abandon your plan.

Instead, find healthy ways to cope...e.g., prioritize and plan your activities, set aside time to relax, and delegate or let go of some responsibilities.

9. Create a supportive environment — Understand and find ways to change or avoid the environmental or social cues or triggers that go along with the behavior you’re trying to change.

For instance, if you go for coffee or dessert every time you see a particular friend, suggest that you go for a walk instead.

Tell your network of friends, family and other close contacts that you’d appreciate their help, and offer specific suggestions for what they can do to provide encouragement, emotional support and encouragement for your efforts.

Also, organized support from a dietitian, doctor, counselor, personal trainer, support group or commercial program can benefit many individuals who are trying to achieve certain lifestyle changes.

Gaining insights from others who experience similar challenges, tracking the changes you’re achieving or working together to build skills are other ways to accomplish your goals.

10. Bounce back from lapses — Since old habits die hard, an occasional lapse is normal.

But when it happens, avoid falling into all-or-nothing thinking...one setback doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

Keep in mind the 90-10 rule...it’s what you do 90 percent of the time that matters, not 10 percent of the time, explains the health letter.

Take another small step, to get back on track.

Remember that changing your life doesn’t happen all at once, the letter advises.

Behavior choices had little to do with health a hundred years ago, since the leading causes of death then were infectious diseases, such as influenza and tuberculosis.

However, today’s top killers...heart disease, cancer and stroke...can all be prevented to some extent.

It’s estimated that as many as half of all deaths each year stem from unhealthy behaviors.

Therefore, to increase your odds of a longer life, consider the following essential changes offered by the health letter:

Stop using tobacco — Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable or premature death in the U.S.

Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetable, whole grains and dried beans and peas (legumes), and low in fat.

This promotes a healthy weight and helps reduce the risk of various diseases, including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Stay physically active — Physical activity reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer, and also helps prevent obesity, concludes the health letter.