Creatures Of Habit
Last updated: May 2018
There are lots of opinions about the best way to combat rheumatoid arthritis. Between all the various pharmaceutical treatments, over the counter products, diets, alternative therapies, and vitamins and supplements, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in trying to determine the best course of action. However, getting moderate exercise and eating a healthy diet are two methods of supporting RA wellness that doctors all agree on. Yet, while the decision to start working out or eat more fresh foods may be a no-brainer, follow through is much more difficult.
Plenty of people without RA struggle with such resolutions, but having this condition poses some additional challenges. For instance, the pain and inflammation caused by RA can make even lying down uncomfortable, so the thought of going for a walk or swim may be daunting. Likewise, pain can make the peeling, chopping, and stirring involved in cooking fresh vegetables an unpleasant proposition. Further, RA also frequently causes fatigue, which can make just getting through a day difficult enough without trying to find the energy and motivation to add exercise and healthy eating to the mix. Therefore, people with rheumatoid arthritis are often faced with an increased importance of healthy habits as well as additional barriers in establishing them. Learning some basic tips about forming healthy habits can lead to more success in incorporating new practices into your life.
I looked at a variety of articles about forming new habits. Some authors say there are five steps involved, others suggest seven, and still others say that ten steps are needed. Depending on the particular habit that one is trying to establish, some of the recommended steps may be more important than others. For this article, I am outlining the steps that I personally have found to be helpful to my success in establishing new habits.
1) Preparation. Before you can start a new practice, you must first make the decision to do so. Then you need to plan what will be involved in making this habit more achievable. For instance, if you decide to start bringing healthy lunches to work instead of eating out, preparation would involve coming up with a list of easy-to-make menu items and a corresponding grocery list, and then purchasing the needed supplies.
2) Start Small. Many people make New Year’s resolutions such as “exercise more” and “eat better.” However, those goals are large and vague. We may give them our all for a couple of weeks, but before February we’ve lost steam and have abandoned them until the following year. It’s a better idea to break large goals into small, specific tasks. For instance, rather than planning to “exercise more” the goal can be to practice yoga for 10 minutes every morning. “Eating better” might involve a complete overhaul of one’s lifestyle, which could quickly become overwhelming and therefore less likely to stick. The aforementioned goal of bringing healthy lunches to work is a smaller, more specific goal that is more attainable than changing the contents of all of our meals all of the time.
3) Use a Trigger. I have found this to be a critically important step. In our busy lives, it is so easy to intend to exercise or make a lunch but end up getting involved in other tasks and running out of time. When we use a trigger, it helps make the new practice part of our routine, so that we come to not only plan for it but to count on it as part of our daily schedule. For instance, I long had the intention to do 10 minutes of yoga every morning. However, I would often put it off until after I’d unloaded the dishwasher, checked email, or took a shower. Before I knew it, it was time to wake up the kids to get them ready for school, and the time to exercise had slipped away. I would end up vowing to do yoga the next morning, yet kept putting it off again and again. The trick to making yoga a daily habit was to establish a trigger.
Coffee is a given in my life. It would require a very significant event to cause me to skip my morning coffee (like an asteroid hitting my house). As this is an essential and predictable part of my morning routine, I decided to use the act of making coffee as my trigger to do yoga. Each morning I wake up, fill up the coffee maker with water and grounds, and start the machine. Then I do ten minutes of yoga while it brews. I do not allow myself to have any coffee until I’ve done some yoga. “Morning time” already meant “coffee time” in my mind, and now “coffee time” means “yoga time.” With the two linked, I never forget my intention to do some yoga on a daily basis.
4) Reward Yourself. Just as the trigger of making coffee has proven to be incredibly useful in establishing a yoga routine, so has the coffee itself, as that is my reward. Each morning I’m desperate for coffee, but if I allow myself to have it before I’ve done my yoga, it becomes too easy to put off the yoga. Since determining that I only get coffee post-yoga, I’m always motivated to exercise in the morning. Even if something happens to interrupt the trigger-practice sequence (for instance, after I start the coffee machine my husband asks me for help with a computer task or I respond to a text message), requiring the practice take place before I get the reward ensures that I go right back to the trigger-practice-reward sequence in spite of the interruption.
These tips to forming new habits can be used with any endeavor one is trying to incorporate. With the example of making healthy lunches for work, the trigger could also be making coffee, preparing breakfast, or any other part of one’s morning routine. The reward could be a five-minute stroll outside after eating lunch at work, or a few minutes spent on a favorite online activity (social media, internet shopping, online game, etc.). If I was trying to get more rest by going to bed earlier each night, I could use an artificial trigger such as an alarm on my phone set to go off at 9:30pm every evening. The plan could be that when I hear that trigger, I immediately wrap up what I’m doing, brush my teeth, wash my face, put my jammies on, and get in bed. My reward could then be time to read before turning out the lights.
These are just a few examples of how some simple principles can be applied to make habit formation more successful. It’s also worthwhile to note that most experts advise working on one habit at a time, so as not to overwhelm yourself, which can lead to giving up. While RA can add some additional hurdles to forming healthier habits, it also ups the ante in the potential benefits we can reap from improved self-care. With some planning, patience, and perseverance, it is possible to slowly adopt more and more healthy habits into one’s routine.
When I feel fatigued, I rest as much as I can:
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