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HealthBeat

How to conquer New Year’s resolutions from quitting smoking to climbing Everest

  • Donna Welcome, left, assistant weight recorder, has her weekly weight recorded by Susan Burnham, weight recorder, before the weight-loss support group, Taking Off Pounds Sensibly and Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS and KOPS) meets at the United Church of Penacook on Wednesday evening, December 18, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Donna Welcome, left, assistant weight recorder, has her weekly weight recorded by Susan Burnham, weight recorder, before the weight-loss support group, Taking Off Pounds Sensibly and Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS and KOPS) meets at the United Church of Penacook on Wednesday evening, December 18, 2013.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Donna Welcome received a flower, given to a member who loses the most weight during the weekly weigh-in at the weight-loss support group, Taking Off Pounds Sensibly and Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS and KOPS).<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

    Donna Welcome received a flower, given to a member who loses the most weight during the weekly weigh-in at the weight-loss support group, Taking Off Pounds Sensibly and Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS and KOPS).

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

  • Donna Welcome, left, assistant weight recorder, has her weekly weight recorded by Susan Burnham, weight recorder, before the weight-loss support group, Taking Off Pounds Sensibly and Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS and KOPS) meets at the United Church of Penacook on Wednesday evening, December 18, 2013.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
  • Donna Welcome received a flower, given to a member who loses the most weight during the weekly weigh-in at the weight-loss support group, Taking Off Pounds Sensibly and Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS and KOPS).<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Making a New Year’s resolution to improve your health?

I spoke with local experts in a handful of health fields about how to achieve health goals, and their advice – for conquering things ranging from anxiety to excess pounds to smoking – sounded surprisingly similar.

Let’s say you set a goal: climb Mount Monadnock. Quit smoking. Lose 50 pounds. Stop biting your nails.

If they’re outside your normal comfort zone, all big goals can seem as high, as far and as unattainable as the top of Mount Everest. If that goal really is out of reach, people realize it quickly, get frustrated and stop trying, the experts all said.

Mountaineers know no one gets to the top of Everest in one straight shot, and the experts all recommended tackling other goals the same way those climbers conquer towering peaks:

Prepare yourself well, make note of intermediate goals to aim for along the way to the summit, and celebrate when you reach each one. Then start looking up at the next one, and keep moving.

Overcoming anxiety

Lynn Lyons, a family therapist in Concord, said people looking to conquer anxiety in 2014 should stop. That’s the wrong goal, she said.

“The goal can’t be to walk into a party and not feel anxious,” she said.

Instead, “the goal is not to fight the anxiety. The goal has to be, be okay with anxiety. You have to learn you are going to survive feeling anxious. To do that, you have to do the work to feel anxious on purpose.”

And you have to do that frequently, intensely and for a considerable amount of time, she said.

“The more you want to achieve, the more you have to focus on those,” she said.

It’s helped her clients in the past when she asks them, “What’s the biggest fib you tell yourself about this goal? When you say, ‘I can’t do this because . . .’ that’s what keeps you believing you can’t change.”

Beating a craving

Diane Masters, a health educator at the Center for Health Promotion in Concord, doesn’t have many stories to share of ways people have successfully quit smoking. That’s because they don’t reach her office until they’ve tried everything they can think of, and can’t quit.

She doesn’t say they’ve failed, though.

“They see it as a failure, because they don’t realize how valuable those previous attempts are. You learn, every time, what was effective, what was not effective, what caused a relapse,” she said. “It takes a lot of attempts, and most people, asking a professional person for help is usually the last thing they do. It should be the first step.”

Their second step? Make a plan, of course.

Most people, when they decide to quit smoking, whether for the first time or the fifth, throw up their hands and vow not to take another puff, Masters said.

What they really need to do is break their plan into smaller steps, specific actions that will help them achieve their goal, starting with some self-examination.

The American Lung Association has an online tool for tracking when and where you smoke, so you can note the time, circumstances and your mood to identify triggers that hold potential to trip you up later.

Masters also recommends planning ahead to reward yourself when you make it to milestones and small goals.

“Even if you just give yourself the gift of time to yourself, a hot bath, some moment of celebration and acknowledgment that you made it so far,” she said.

She also recommends acupuncture, which has been shown to help curb cravings, and hypnosis, which gives people tools for reframing how they view smoking.

Being specific

A relaxing bath or a new 99-cent nail polish would have been a much healthier reward while I quit smoking a few years ago than what I gave myself if I felt I “deserved it”: a chocolate-chunk brownie from The Works Bakery Cafe.

Which brings me to what must be the most commonly made (and deserted by March) New Year’s resolution: losing weight.

“January is 31 days. That leaves 334 days left in the year,” said Pam Matthews, speaking earlier this month at a meeting of the Penacook chapter of TOPS (Taking Off Pounds Sensibly), a national weight-loss support group.

“The journey is every day. Losing weight and maintaining it has to be a lifestyle change,” she said, as the roughly 15 members in the meeting nodded.

Matthews had the same advice for New Year’s resolution-ers: make a plan and get specific.

“Saying I’m going to kick it up a notch isn’t good enough. If I spent the first part of winter sitting on the couch, kicking it up a notch could just be getting up to walk to the kitchen for a snack,” she said.

“Specific” is the first part of TOPS’s SMART acronym for making good goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

Realistic goals

Jake St. Pierre helps people set realistic goals as a certified personal trainer and fitness coach. When it comes to his own goals, he aims as high as possible.

Clients come to him and say they want to lose 60 pounds.

“I say, ‘Well that’s a good goal, let’s start by losing 5 pounds. What if we aim for this instead and try not to make it too hard or impossible?’ ” he said.

One of his clients wants to climb Mount Washington. He keeps her focused on losing the weight that’s putting pressure on her back and knees.

“Once folks focus on the short term, the goal they can get to a little easier, they see results and they want to do more; they get more confidence and they don’t want to quit,” he said. “Then they can focus on the long term, too, the big questions like: Are you going to be around to see your kids grow?”

St. Pierre, however, is using Mount Washington as a training ground for his own goal: climb Mount Everest.

He visited Nepal this fall and climbed a nearby peak that reaches 21,000 feet above sea level.

He’s working toward a 2015 attempt on Everest, a goal he’s had in his sights since he was a kid.

And again, he broke that big goal down into smaller ones: saving up to buy each piece of needed equipment; learning to climb by conquering smaller mountains; and working his way up higher and higher.

“You start small, and you keep the big goal in mind without letting it get daunting and overwhelming,” he said.

Eventually, St. Pierre wants to be the first to summit one of the many unclimbed, unnamed peaks in the Himalayas.

Even climbing Everest, apparently, can be just a step along the path to a larger goal.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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