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What Health Coaches Know

5 Ways to (Finally!) Achieve Your Goals

By Kate Rockwood | February 5, 2018 | Rally Health

Do you start a healthy lifestyle change, but then your follow-through quickly fizzles out? Join the club. According to a 2016 survey conducted by North Carolina health provider Novant Health, a third of respondents — the highest proportion — said a lack of interest or motivation was their main barrier to a healthier lifestyle. That’s not really surprising: motivation is a tricky, complex thing. It might be sky high following a scary doctor’s appointment or visit with an inspiring friend who jumped on the healthy habits bandwagon. Then, three weeks (or hours) later, inertia sets in and your motivation peters out.

Luckily, you don’t have to go it alone. Here are some techniques health coaches — aka change cheerleaders —  use to help people not just get motivated — but stay that way. (Steal these tips!)  

Identifying Your Anchors

We’ve all heard the many reasons you should quit smoking, but what’s the personal reason that’s driving your change? Why do you want to drop a few pounds? What’s behind your desire to change your diet? Health coaches are more interested in the whys than the shoulds, because they know that, ultimately, if you’re to make a lasting lifestyle change, it has to be anchored to what’s really important to you and you alone. “It has to be about each individual’s goals, beliefs and values,” says Robert Crocker, MD, director of strategic clinical planning and implementation at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.

In health coach lingo, this is called “values exploration.” It helps you identify your sources of intrinsic motivation, so on the rest of your journey you’ll have something to come back to.  “When things get tough, when you have to exercise and just don’t want to, when you’re tempted to eat off your diet plan, you do need an anchor,” says Sheri Pruitt, PhD, a behavioral science expert and health coach trainer in Roseville, California. “So you can say, ‘Even though I feel terrible, I’m still going to do it because I have a greater purpose in mind, because I’m committed to these values.’”

Help yourself: Grab a piece of paper and write down the health change you want to make, says Pruitt. Then jot down at least three reasons driving your motivation. If one of your drivers feels pretty generic (say, to feel fitter or to have more energy), try pushing yourself to add specific detail. Do you want to get active so you can join your kids on the jogging trails? Are you hoping a better diet might put enough pep in your step to take up a new hobby? The more specific your motivator, the more likely you are to stick with the change, she says.

Handing You the Megaphone

A common counseling method health coaches use is motivational interviewing, a “collaborative, person-centered way to guide people in their thinking,” says Crocker. Under this approach, it’s the health coach’s first job to ask you questions — and then sit back, listen and acknowledge what you’re saying by ‘reflecting’ it back to you. It’s neither prescriptive nor directive. Instead, the goal is to get the client to engage in “change talk,” to get them talking about their ability to change, their desire to do better, the benefits in store for them when they change, and so on. “You want to elicit from within them the strength and motivation for change,” says Crocker. “Often when they speak to you, they may be hearing it for the first time themselves, because they’ve not had an opportunity to talk about this in depth, or maybe they never thought about it in this way.”

Help yourself: While it may be hard to find your inner cheerleader on your own, one of the first steps is quieting your inner critic, says Crocker. That’s especially true if you’ve tried — and failed — to make a change several times in the past. You might not even realize how entrenched your own script of failed motivation is, until you hear yourself joking about backsliding or disparaging your efforts. When that happens, ask yourself: Would I say this to a friend who was trying to make a positive change?

Helping You Set Smart Goals

It’s important to have goals to harness your motivation — if not, your efforts will flag a lot more easily.  “When people who are motivated set an unreasonable goal, they’re setting themselves up for failure,” says Crocker. You’ve probably heard this one before, but many health coaches still stand behind it: SMART goals, or goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

Keeping the SMART framework in mind will ensure that you stay on your wellness journey and not derail your own progress, says Crocker. What’s also important, though, is that while a health coach may make helpful suggestions, they’re there to ultimately help you decide on your own goals. That’s because science has borne out that maintaining the autonomy to set and work toward your goals makes it more likely for you to make long-lasting changes to your behavior, according to a 2012 study in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

Help yourself: Take that fuzzy health goal you have in mind and scrutinize it with the SMART framework. Is “eat better” a specific goal? Not really. So get specific: Do you want to trim your calories, eat more produce, cut back on sugar? How will you measure your progress? Does it feel like a goal you can make happen — especially right now? And how will you work it into your daily life? Taking the time to fine-tune your goal can mean the difference between a fuzzy, ill-defined intention that never gets any traction and a concrete change you can follow through on, says Crocker.

Rewarding and Reinforcing Behavior

It takes a lot of effort to change behavior, says Pruitt, because training a new behavior is akin to “trying to lay down new neural pathways in your brain.” “You have to reward a behavior every single time, certainly to get it started,” she says. “Once it becomes part of a routine, or once it becomes rewarding on its own, you have to pair good feeling with that behavior, or it’s not going to continue.”

There are different ways to reward and reinforce behavior, and health coaches are there to help you come up with the best system that will sustain your motivation and help you make that lasting change, Pruitt says.

Help yourself: One option is to combine intangible reinforcement (like telling yourself, heartily and genuinely, ‘good job!’ after every 30-minute slog on the treadmill) and tangible rewards (for instance, a ticket to a play you’ve been meaning to see after a month of weekly runs). Of course, you’re the one coming up with these reward/reinforcement systems — the health coach is only there to facilitate your journey. Another way to bolster your motivation is to focus on some part of the task (however tiny) that you enjoy, whether that’s the endorphins that follow an aerobics class or the fact that you get to spend time chatting with a friend during your long walks. A 2016 Iowa State University study found that intrinsic rewards — pleasurable or enjoyable things you experience during the activity itself — are key to forming an exercise habit.

Helping You Face Setbacks

When you’re trying to shed longtime habits and adopt new, even foreign practices, you’re bound to slip and stumble along the way. That’s OK, and health coaches are there to help you in times of trouble. “You talk about what’s difficult for them, sure, but you also talk about how they’ve succeeded in making changes in the past,” says Crocker. “You let them reflect on ways they think they can be successful. It’s an iterative process, and every step of the way you want them to have their efforts affirmed.”

Help yourself: When you hit a bump in the road, think about how you’ve changed in the past. From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away from brainstorming a solution to your current — and future — woes. “When they come up with a solution and become invested in thinking through it, they learn problem-solving skills that can translate not just into their lifestyles but other areas of their lives as well,” says Crocker.

Finding a Coach

Rally members may have access to coaching programs at no added cost. (United Health members can sign in and see if any coaching programs are available here. And all Rally members can start the enrollment process to find out if the Real Appeal weight loss program is available.) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also keeps a registry of CDC-recognized lifestyle change programs for diabetes prevention. These include medical providers and community centers like the YMCA, as well as Real Appeal and other programs.

Kate Rockwood
Rally Health