How To Change Your Lifestyle: Tips For the Long Run - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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How To Change Your Lifestyle: Tips For the Long Run

Your Four-Step Guide to Lifelong Lifestyle Change

Key Takeaways:

  • Learning how to change your lifestyle in the five key areas of nutrition, exercise, stress, sleep, and community is important for lifelong wellness.
  • Changing your lifestyle for the long-run means practicing self-reflection, finding a supportive community, and consistently moving toward your goals.
  • Willpower may work in the short-term but isn’t a great long-term strategy for how to change your lifestyle.
  • Focusing on intrinsic motivators like learning to love the challenge and pursuing new lifestyle goals with a group are better for long-term success.
  • Improving your gut health can make it easier to stick with healthy lifestyle changes.
  • Addressing trauma and ensuring the basic human needs of love, safety, and connection are met make it easier to be consistent with healthy lifestyle habits.

Creating an overall healthy lifestyle is the key to lifelong well-being but let’s face it, it often feels hard to change your life. If you want to be healthy but find yourself reverting back to old bad habits, you’re not alone. I often hear patients say they know what to do to be healthy, they just don’t do it. So, is it simply a lack of willpower?  

We’ve probably all heard how important willpower is and if you have it, you can achieve all your wellness goals, right? But in my discussion with Kevin Geary on the podcast, he reiterated that willpower may help you achieve short-term success but isn’t an effective long-term strategy for how to change your lifestyle.



Kevin explains that constantly stopping when things get hard and then starting back with healthy behaviors when things are easy is likely rooted in past experiences and the overall relationship you have with your body, food, and the people around you. Getting to a place where you consistently practice healthy habits requires some inner work. This means addressing the underlying causes of lifestyle behaviors and negative thoughts that may be keeping you from reaching your overall health goals.

It also means shifting your motivation from willpower to finding inherent satisfaction in your daily habits, otherwise known as intrinsic motivation. Some examples of this include learning to enjoy the challenge of a new goal, doing healthy things for your body because they make you feel great and reduce your stress level, and pursuing new lifestyle goals with other people in order to create a sense of belonging. 

In this article, I’ll take you through four steps for how to change your lifestyle. I’ll start by teaching you to think of your health as a bank account and share some ways to overcome common obstacles. Then we’ll move on to healing your gut, self-reflection, and finding your community, which can all make lifelong healthy lifestyle change achievable. Let’s start with a brief big-picture overview.

How To Change Your Lifestyle: Overview

Creating a healthy lifestyle for the long-run means addressing four basic steps that I’ve outlined in this chart:

Step Description
Step 1: Health Bank Account Philosophy
  • Make more deposits than withdrawals to your health account
  • Implement positive changes for success
    • Work with a professional
    • Set appropriate goals
    • Allow yourself to have ups and downs
    • Don’t be afraid to challenge your body 
    • Give yourself options
    • Commit to trying new things
    • Avoid “it’s-a-race” mentality (feeling like you have to do everything at once or within a certain timeframe)
    • Let go of the “I am sick” mentality
    • Don’t get distracted by “shiny” things
    • Avoid using single measurements to track progress
Step 2: Fix Your Gut
  • Paleo diet
  • Address stress, sleep, exercise, and social connection
  • Triple therapy probiotics
Step 3: Self-Reflection
  • Consider any needs that aren’t being met (connection, safety, love)
  • Heal trauma
Step 4: Nourish Emotional Health
  • Foster social connections
  • Repair or release unhealthy relationships
  • Connect with nature

Let’s start off with the foundation of reframing the way you think about health behaviors. 

How To Change Your Lifestyle Step 1: Deposit More Than You Withdraw

During the podcast, Kevin recommended we have a bank account philosophy when it comes to health behaviors. Essentially, make more deposits than withdrawals and stay out of debt. Examples of deposits could be anything from eating a whole-foods diet and exercising to getting enough sleep and meditating. Whereas withdrawals may be anything from staying out later than usual and sitting for most of the day to eating a fast-food meal and watching a scary movie right before bed.

The beauty of this type of thinking is it helps you avoid the guilt and shame that often accompany perfectionistic ideals that surround healthy behavior. As with a real bank account, you understand there will be times when you need to make a withdrawal, but since you choose to make daily deposits, you’re not at risk of going into health debt. 

Essentially, we’re changing the inner dialogue. Instead of thinking in absolutes, we’re giving ourselves some leeway to not be perfect on our steady march forward. While this type of thinking can result in a slower gain of progress, it’s typically more successful in the long-run [1].

How To Overcome Obstacles to Change

You’re sure to run into some bumps in the road, and that’s perfectly normal. I chatted about some of the most common obstacles to health and fitness goals and how to overcome them with Dr. Joe Mather and Dr. Scott Spiridigliozzi on the podcast. This chart summarizes some of our recommendations:

ObstacleWays To Overcome

Lack of accurate information
Work with a professional to create personalized, descriptive goals around nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep, and community. 

Unrealistic goals
Set goals that are appropriate. Chances are if you’ve never been running, signing up for a marathon right off the bat isn’t going to be the best option. Consider what your long-term goals are and then create a list of small goals that will eventually lead you there.

All-or-nothing mentality
Allow yourself to have ups and downs. There will undoubtedly be days where you feel like you can do anything and others where you feel off your game. There may be periods when you need to lessen the intensity of exercise or be more lenient with food choices in order to give your body what it needs. Listen to the cues your body provides and know it’s ok to take a step back if needed.

Lack of belief in your ability
Don’t be afraid to challenge your body. The human body is designed to be resilient. It’s often our minds that get in the way of our fitness goals. If you believe you can’t do something, then you likely won’t be able to do it. 

Being inflexible with your daily routine
Give yourself options. Maybe you were going to prepare dinner from scratch but ended up getting home late from your new job. It’s ok to pivot to a new plan for that meal. Likewise, if you’re feeling more tired than usual, take a bike ride instead of the intense run you planned. You’ll still be making a health deposit, just at a different level. 

Getting restless with a rigid routine 
Commit to trying new things and learning new skills. If you’re a person who gets bored with doing the same exercises and eating the same foods day after day, try out a new exercise or healthy recipe to keep things exciting.

Racing to reach your goals
Avoid the “it’s-a-race” mentality. Try not to feel pressured into immediately hitting the gym every day, cutting out every “unhealthy food” right off the bat, or starting a meditation practice 3 times a day. Consistent effort every day will help you get there and there’s no need to race yourself or anyone else. 

Negative thinking
Let go of the “I am sick” mentality. If you’re recovering from an ailment or have felt fatigued for quite some time, it’s easy to slip into thinking you’re destined to feel bad every day. Slowly reframe your thoughts by doing something that moves you toward your health goals. Even if it’s just taking the dog for a walk in the sunshine, that’s a deposit in your health account. Focus on the strength you feel when walking and on the loving connection with your pet. These small moments of gratitude will help shift your mentality.

Focusing on the latest fads
Don’t get distracted by “shiny things”. There are so many different tests, diets, and supplements that promise to make all your health dreams come true, but their benefits can be fleeting at best. At the end of the day, you probably just need to fine-tune the foundations.

Tracking your progress with weight alone
Avoid using a single measurement to track progress. If you’re only looking at the number on the scale, you’re going to be disappointed when it doesn’t improve every single time. Instead, track your progress by taking note of how your symptoms have improved, how much stronger you feel during training sessions, how your clothes fit, and how much more energy you have.

Now that you know how to change the inner dialogue and have learned how to overcome some common obstacles, let’s move on to step 2: fixing your gut.

How To Change Your Lifestyle Step 2: Fix Your Gut

You can think of poor gut health as a physical manipulator that keeps you from reaching your health goals despite the fact that you may be putting in a lot of effort. As I discuss in Healthy Gut, Healthy You, poor gut health is quite common and can lead to a myriad of symptoms like cravings, fatigue, insomnia, and joint pain that make it difficult to sustain a healthy life change [2, 3, 4]. 

Addressing gut health is crucial for creating the foundation for other healthy lifestyle changes. When you feel good physically, you’re better able to implement and maintain healthy lifestyle changes.

I’ll walk you through the first 2 components of my Great-in-8 Action Plan for gut healing here, which can often lead to a dramatic improvement in gut health and ultimately fewer cravings, better sleep, and improved mood.

Reset Your Diet and Daily Habits

This initial step consists of a quick modified liquid fast with Elemental Heal (2 – 4 days) and then moving on to important diet and behavioral changes. 

I typically recommend starting with the Paleo diet, which covers the four principles of healthy eating:

  1. Eat to control inflammation [5, 6, 7, 8
  2. Eat to control and balance blood sugar [9, 10]
  3. Find your ideal intake of carbohydrates and prebiotics
  4. Identify your food allergies and intolerances [5, 6]

Here’s what the Paleo diet looks like:

<strong>How To Change Your Lifestyle: Tips For the Long Run</strong> - What%20To%20Eat%20On%20The%20Paleo%20Diet 01 L

Follow this meal plan for 2 to 3 weeks and then re-evaluate. If you’re feeling great, then stick with it. If you feel like there’s still room for improvement, you may want to try a more restricted diet like low FODMAP

Many solutions to fixing your gut are, in fact, lifestyle changes themselves. So you can both heal your digestive tract and revamp your life all in one go. Here’s a chart of some of the most important lifestyle factors to address when fixing your gut (and for optimizing your long-term health), along with some tips for success:

Lifestyle Factor Tips for Success
Sleep
  • Aim for 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep
  • Create a consistent bedtime routine
    • Take a hot bath or shower [11]
    • Read by low light [11]
    • Listen to soft music
    • Avoid eating within 2 to 3 hours of bedtime
    • Avoid screens and bright lights before bed [12]
    • Sleep in a cold bedroom [13]
    • Exercise regularly [14]
    • Address nighttime breathing problems [15]
    • Consider sleep-supporting supplements, if needed [16, 17, 18]
Exercise
  • Plan for physical activity on most days of the week
    • Walk as much as possible every day
    • Cardiovascular training (fast walking, swimming, biking, rowing, running) 3 sessions per week [19, 20, 21]
    • Strength training 3 sessions per week [22]
    • Flexibility training (stretching or yoga) daily [23]
Stress Management
  • Prioritize being in nature
  • Practice daily yoga or meditation [24, 25, 26]
  • Practice mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques [27] 
  • Consider cognitive behavioral therapy [28]
Social connections
  • Create and nurture healthy relationships
  • Get involved with people who have common interests like through a book club or bowling league
  • Learn a new activity, try a new foods, or discover new places with loved ones

In my experience, simply changing your diet and lifestyle leads to about 30% improvement, but some people may have complete resolution of their symptoms. If you don’t feel 100% improved after trying the above suggestions, probiotics are a great next step.

Support Your Gut With Probiotics

Once you’ve got your diet and daily habits dialed in, you can try probiotics for the extra push toward great gut health. Probiotics can help improve the balance of organisms in your gut, reduce an overzealous immune system, and quell inflammation [29, 30, 31, 32].

In the clinic, I use a triple therapy probiotic approach, meaning I use all 3 categories of probiotics. I start with a Lactobacillus/Bifidobacterium blend and then add both Saccharomyces boulardii and soil-based probiotics.

<strong>How To Change Your Lifestyle: Tips For the Long Run</strong> - Using%20Supplements 04 L

Here’s how to use probiotics:

  1. Try a quality formula probiotic from category 1, category 2, and category 3 — take all three together. 
  2. Monitor your symptoms for 3-4 weeks. If you’re improving, continue with all 3 categories of probiotics until your improvements have plateaued.
  3. Once you’ve seen your maximum improvement (you’ve plateaued), stay here for about a month to allow your system to calibrate to these new improvements. 
  4. Reduce your dose slowly to find the minimal effective dose.  
  5. Stay on the minimal effective dose to maintain results.

If you haven’t noticed any change in your symptoms after 3-4 weeks, you can stop taking probiotics and feel confident that you’ve fully explored probiotic therapy. If you’re feeling much improved, you can begin to reintroduce some of the foods you removed during your elimination diet. Here’s a nice step-by-step guide on how to approach the reintroduction of foods. It’s important to note that you’ll want to follow a whole-food, minimally processed diet and continue with your healthy lifestyle changes to maintain the improvements.

How To Change Your Lifestyle Step 3: Self-Reflection

If health education was the only thing needed to practice consistent healthy living, many people would already be on the path to optimal health. However, education is only one part of the equation. You can have all the right information for your body but still have a hard time implementing new habits consistently. 

This is where self-reflection and changing up your health motivators come in handy. On the podcast, Kevin shares how unhealthy external behaviors have little to do with willpower but instead are related to some basic human need (like safety, human connection, love, or acceptance) that’s not being met. 

Kevin used sugar consumption to illustrate this point. When you eat sugar daily, you develop a dependence, so trying to avoid sugar creates a strong craving. If you allow yourself time to detox from sugar for a few weeks, the sugar cravings will more than likely go away as you no longer have a physical dependence. 

If you get through the detox period yet still have a strong urge to consume sugar, there’s probably an internal factor that needs to be addressed before you can free yourself from this cycle of behavior. A good example of this might be if you have an unfulfilling career, you may frequent the breakroom snack machine more often. Trying to tough it out with willpower isn’t likely to work here. 

Focusing on intrinsic motivators like feeling proud after completing a tough workout, seeing a new work project as a challenge, feeling less anxious after a meditation session, or helping a friend learn how to make a healthy meal will be more beneficial when it comes to long-term success.

Self-reflection means taking a hard look at the aspects of your life that are keeping you from reaching your long-term goals. If your relationship to food (or any lifestyle factor) is unhealthy as the result of past or current trauma, you’ll likely continue on this roller coaster of short-term success followed by reverting back to the status quo. 

Is Trauma Affecting Your Health?

Many of us have had some sort of trauma in our lives, no matter how big or small. Long-term and unresolved trauma-based stress may not only affect your mental health and lead to disease in the body but can derail your good intentions for change.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire is a free resource you can use to determine if trauma may be impacting your ability to implement healthy lifestyle changes consistently. On a quick note, this should not be used as a diagnostic for trauma-based disorders, like PTSD.

If you suspect trauma as an underlying cause, I recommend working with a professional or joining a support group to navigate your specific situation. In the clinic, I use the Gupta program, a limbic retraining program that goes deep into the reasons why people struggle with getting and staying well.  

Along the same lines as trauma, feeling socially isolated can negatively impact your health and keep you from achieving your goals. Let’s look at why social connection is such an important part of changing your lifestyle for the better.

How To Change Your Lifestyle Step 4: Nourish Emotional Health

Lack of meaningful social connection may be one of the biggest reasons people don’t remain consistent with their positive health-related changes. Think about your coworkers, friends, and family. Do you feel connected to those people, and are your relationships healthy? 

If not, this could be one massive stressor affecting your ability to stick with healthy eating habits and other healthy lifestyle behaviors. If you’re not accustomed to it, social connection can be a challenge. Here are some ways to foster social connections:

  • Make the first move to repair a relationship
  • Move on from relationships that no longer feel good
  • Join a fitness group or book club
  • Invite a friend or family member for a walk
  • Organize a weekly healthy dinner with extended family
  • Say “yes” to invitations
  • Plan a weekly phone conversation with a friend
  • Take a healthy cooking class
  • Initiate conversations with strangers
  • There are even apps, like Meet Up, to help find people with virtually endless shared interests 

Just as it’s important to connect with people, it’s equally important to connect with nature to foster emotional health.

Don’t Forget About Your Connection With Nature

Connecting with nature plays a significant role in improving our physical and mental health. For example, walking in nature has been shown to significantly decrease activity in the amygdala (a brain structure involved in the stress response) when compared to walking on a busy street (X). 

But don’t worry if you live in the city, a walk through your local park should do the trick. Here are some additional ways to connect with nature, whether you live in an urban or rural area:

  • Read a book by a flowing stream
  • Watch the sunrise or sunset
  • Walk barefoot through the grass
  • Plant a garden and work the soil or get involved with a community garden
  • Practice yoga in the sunshine at the local park
  • Go forest bathing
  • Plan a camping trip
  • Go for a picnic
  • Take your dog for a hike in the woods
  • Paddleboard on the lake
  • Create a green space indoors with houseplants

Spending time in nature allows you to find time for yourself so you are happier, healthier, and ready to make long-lasting lifestyle changes.

Four Steps To Change Your Lifestyle For Good

Creating an overall healthy lifestyle with regard to nutrition, stress, exercise, sleep, and community is the key to feeling great and achieving optimal health. But many of us make healthy changes that we stick with for a while, only to fall back into the same old routine. 

Instead of beating yourself up for a lack of willpower, consider what might be underlying your inability to commit to a healthy lifestyle long-term and work on developing your intrinsic motivators.

If you’re struggling with how to change your lifestyle once and for all, it’s important to do the foundational work. Fix your gut health, take time for self-reflection, find your community, and make more deposits than withdrawals to your health account, and you’ll be on the road to lifelong wellness and a great quality of life.

If you need a more thorough gut-healing plan, check out Healthy Gut, Healthy You. And if you’d like more personalized guidance on how to change your lifestyle, contact us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine to meet with one of our doctors or health coaches.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

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Discussion

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