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If you've held firm to your New Year's resolutions for a month and a half or so, give yourself a high five -- you're about halfway to sticking to them for good. The reason: It takes roughly 90 days to make or break a habit, according to addiction-behavior researcher Alan Marlatt, PhD, professor and director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. The bad news: "Temptation grows, not decreases, as you begin to change your behavior," says psychiatrist Balasa Prasad, MD, chairman of the anesthesia department at the Mount Vernon Hospital in Mount Vernon, New York, and author of Stop Smoking for Good.
Knowing that the next few months will require more commitment than ever, FITNESS gathered an arsenal of strategies to help reel you in from the brink of relapse.You're most likely to relapse...
...in one to three months. Ironically, "lapses tend to occur once people start seeing improvement," says Daniel Kirschenbaum, PhD, director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine and Sport Psychology in Chicago and author of The Healthy Obsession Program. Your pants fit you better, and suddenly you think that you can afford to indulge in Nutella. That is, until your pants start to fit like shrink-wrap again.Relapse-Buster 1
Keep a food journal. You've heard it before: Committing pen to paper each time you commit fork to mouth encourages good habits. "You stay more focused because you're aware of your long-term goal of weight loss every time you use it," says Kirschenbaum. These days, self-monitoring devices can do the math for you -- and then some. The Bodybugg, available at bodybugg.com, is an armband that uses sensors to gauge your every move. It's expensive -- $399 for the armband plus a three-month online subscription; $14.95 a month after that -- but Kara Gallagher, PhD, an exercise physiologist in Louisville, Kentucky, likes it because it takes the guesswork out of dieting. A less expensive option is the Pocket Diet Tracker, $24.95, which can be downloaded to your PDA. As slick as these gadgets are, Kirschenbaum says the most effective self-monitoring device is still ink and parchment, for the simple reason "you don't have to worry about paper crashing or freezing."Relapse-Buster 2
Have your cake, but just one small piece. Relying solely on willpower is the quickest road to ruin, says addiction-behavior researcher John C. Norcross, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. In fact, those who try to withstand the forbidden fruit (or pizza or tiramisu) through steely nerves alone are actually three times more likely to chuck the entire diet once they give in to the siren song of the dessert tray. Instead, allow for the occasional slice of cake or order of cheese fries, and treat it as an indulgence, not an excuse to fall off the wagon.Relapse-Buster 3
Think ahead. For some, the family dinner on Sunday may be the scene of the crime. For others, it's the local Starbucks, with its surplus of muffins, dollops of whipped cream, and drizzles of caramel syrup. Know your poison, and avoid it if possible. At your mom's, stay out of the kitchen to prevent predinner grazing. Steer clear of places where "plain coffee" is an anomaly. Or plan for extra exercise to make up for any munching malfunctions. "Know when setbacks are likely to occur, then plan for them strategically," says Kelly Brownell, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
...in a week to 3 months. Lack of time and taking on too much too soon are the most commonly cited reasons for throwing in the exercise towel, says Rod Dishman, PhD, exercise psychologist and professor at the University of Georgia. Most of us think we have to bust a gut to reap any benefit, which sets us up for failure.Relapse-Buster 1
Schedule your workouts. "Studies show that exercisers are more likely to stick to their goals if they write them down," says sports psychologist Charlie Brown, PhD, who is affiliated with the American College of Sports Medicine. Think of them as nonnegotiable appointments, says organizing and time-management consultant Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out. And be realistic: If you know you have an insane week coming up, don't plan 60-minute workouts after office hours when you can more easily fit in a 30-minute exercise DVD in the morning.Relapse-Buster 2
Try the 20-minute rule. Forget the old "I don't have time" excuse. You can still achieve fitness results by doing short bursts of intense exercise. If you can't make it to the gym, try to engineer more activity into your day. Whenever possible, walk rather than drive, take the stairs -- if they're an option -- rather than the elevator, or even do just a few push-ups. Studies show that significant health benefits occur when exercise is performed in small, repeated bouts rather than in one long sweat session.Relapse-Buster 3
Don't go for the burn. A good guideline: Pick a somewhat difficult intensity, meaning you're breathing hard but can still carry on a conversation, recommends Dishman. A study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands showed that those who engage in moderate physical activity, such as walking and biking, burned more calories over the course of the day than those who went for vigorous workouts. It turns out that high-impact exercisers spend a greater part of their day in a sedentary state (perhaps as a result of being exhausted). The group of moderate exercisers was more active overall, which just goes to show that slow and steady wins the race and doesn't burn you out.
...in a week to a month. Roughly 70 percent of smokers say that they want to stop, but less than 10 percent are able to quit cold turkey. Thinking like an addict is the reason most light up again, says Dr. Prasad. It's easy to remember only the good times -- all those happy hours in your 20s -- and forget the deadly side effects.Relapse-Buster 1
Avoid temptation. You've quit, so why are you still holding on to your lighters, ashtrays, or that emergency pack? Dump them all ASAP so there are no more reminders of your former fire-breathing self, says Dr. Prasad. Otherwise, "You just prolong the misery of trying to stop." If you live with a smoker, request that they take their icky habit outside or into a designated smoker's room: the basement.Relapse-Buster 2
Don't go where you've gone before. Just as alcoholics should avoid bars, quitters should avoid situations in which they may be likely to indulge, says Marlatt. Some tweaks may be temporary until you reach the 90-day mark. Others -- a favorite smoky haunt -- may have to go for good.Relapse-Buster 3
Find a viable replacement. You're less likely to revert to old habits if you develop new behaviors to replace those you're giving up, says Marlatt. For example, if you always lit up over your morning coffee, don't drink coffee -- try caffeinated cocoa or tea instead. If you smoked to reduce stress, find a new release, such as exercise. If you smoked to boost your mood, plan something enjoyable to do every day -- an art exhibit on Monday, the movies on Tuesday, and so on. Just think, if you were a three-pack-a-week smoker, that's roughly $15 multiplied by 52 weeks, which equals mani-pedis galore.
...the next day. You didn't become Mistress of the Dark Side overnight, so don't expect to wake up as Little Miss Sunshine the next day. And while you may have stopped contemplating the apocalypse -- for the time being -- you're having a difficult time keeping all of those nagging neuroses at bay. Of course, if you're truly depressed, you may need to seek out professional treatment. But for many of us, a daily plan can do wonders for the psyche.Relapse-Buster 1
Quit ruminating. Psychoanalyzing every setback makes problems worse, according to Robert Leahy, PhD, director of he American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York City and author of The Worry Cure. The longer you stew, the longer they'll brew. So set your thoughts on something else -- the nicer, the better. Moderately to severely depressed students at Stanford University reported feeling better after shifting their focus to pleasant topics. Another way to halt your negative mental processes: Stop equating uncertainty with a train-wreck outcome. Instead, come up with seven explanations that don't have to do with you.Relapse-Buster 2
Immerse yourself in a hobby you love. Lack of action is precisely what makes you feel stuck in a rut, says Leahy. Break out of your funk by getting absorbed in something so meaningful that you lose yourself in it.Relapse-Buster 3
Stop grousing and get moving! Working up a sweat helps keep the blues at bay by increasing the production of serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals in the brain that make you happy. Short exercise sessions increase feelings of well-being for up to 60 minutes after exercising, according to a new study conducted at the University of Missouri at Columbia. If you need ideas for new moves, see our "Get a Hot Body" guide.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2007.