WebMD BlogsRelationships

This Simple Shift in Thinking May Help You Make Healthy Changes

friends working out
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistMarch 20, 2019

If you have ever tried to make healthier lifestyle choices, then you’ve probably learned that you resist change despite the best of intentions. This is true for goals such as losing weight, eating healthier, exercising regularly, or getting to sleep on time. You dismiss the kind whispers of encouragement with harsh “truths” about your inadequacies. You may be motivated by enthusiastic enticements and promises of rewards, but they soon lose their appeal. And, you probably defend yourself against, or crumble under, harsh demands – neither of which results in success.

But don’t give up – there is hope yet. In 2018, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania came up with a totally different approach.

They found that people can benefit from turning their attention to important connections in their lives, rather than just focusing on themselves and their goals. They asked one group of people to imagine a future time when they might feel close to important connections, such as family, friends, God, or their higher power. They asked a second group of people to make positive wishes for people they knew and for strangers. And, they asked a third control group to reflect on their own least important values. Afterward, all groups were given direct messages about the importance of being more physically active. For one month, they received daily texts reminding them to repeat the same thought experiment. The two groups that were directed to think beyond themselves were much more active than the control group. Those “self-transcendence” groups also showed greater activity in the areas of their brains that are associated with reward and positive responses.

The researchers suggested that by connecting with something beyond yourself, you might be more likely to appreciate yourself as a whole person – as more than the specific challenging behavior. In a sense, it enables you to let your defenses down enough to be more open to making lifestyle changes.

If you have been trying to make a healthy lifestyle change, consider doing your own experiment.

Develop reasons for engaging in a new, healthier behavior. For instance, the researchers gave their subjects the messages that being active will strengthen their muscles, enabling them to move more easily and enjoy activities longer. They suggested developing the habit of taking the stairs (when possible) rather than the elevator. Finally, they explained that sedentary people are more at risk for heart disease, sickness, and earlier death.

Enter these reasons into your phone and set a daily reminder. Pick a time when you will be most likely able to give your full attention to this exercise. At the appointed time, think briefly about connecting with loved ones, or making positive wishes for others. Allow yourself to observe and absorb the positive feelings that accompany this thinking. Then read your note on the importance of making your chosen change in behavior. 

You may find it helpful to chart your chosen behavior. For instance, you might note the days you have taken the steps at work rather than the elevator, or parked at the far end of the parking lot so that you would walk more. Or, if you are trying to eat healthier, you might record your daily food choices. Seeing accomplishments chronicled in this way is motivating for many people.

Paradoxically, by connecting with someone or something beyond yourself, you can nurture yourself. You may feel a greater sense of well-being and be better able to meet the challenge of changing your habits and creating a healthier lifestyle.

WebMD Blog
© 2019 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
Blog Topics:
About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a well-respected psychologist, who is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of the book Insecure in Love.

More from the Relationships Blog

  • Father with adult sons

    Being a Parent is a Lifelong Job

    When we become parents, our lives are forever changed – by our love for our children and also by the accompanying responsibilities ...

  • 650x351_settling-or-sensible

    Can You Really Trust Your Gut?

    “Trust your gut.” We hear this advice a lot, but is it wise? Your gut – or intuition – can be very helpful. It can alert you when ...

View all posts on Relationships

Latest Blog Posts on WebMD

View all blog posts

Important: The opinions expressed in WebMD Blogs are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Blogs are not reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance, objectivity, or any other reason except for compliance with our Terms and Conditions. Some of these opinions may contain information about treatments or uses of drug products that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment.

Do not consider WebMD Blogs as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on WebMD. You should always speak with your doctor before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your care plan or treatment. WebMD understands that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified health care provider. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.

Read More