Changes in lifestyle are much more foreseeable than you might think since all behavioural change goes through the same stages. Regardless of whether you are to start exercising, switch to a healthier diet, stop smoking or stop drinking alcohol, the change you make will follow the same pattern. If you figure out the stages, you will also be better able to manage them and have an easier time succeeding with changing to a healthier life!

The starting stages  

Unaware – The first stage is when there is a lack of awareness. This is a stage at which you don’t even realise you need to make a change. A person at this stage may become angry or take offence if anyone tries to point out that a change might be necessary. So, it might be difficult to get family members or friends on side when they themselves want to change their habits. They may quite simply be at the unaware stage and not be ready to make a change.

Aware – The second stage is when you become aware that a change needs to be made and that it might actually be possible for you to change your habits. Sometimes awareness comes as an irksome insight after a crisis or something disturbing like your blood tests showing a risk of diabetes or high cholesterol. At other times, awareness sneaks up on you. You might see someone who has got fitter and been transformed, or you might read an interesting article about a person with a healthy lifestyle. At this stage, you start to weigh up the pros and cons, start to examine what method might suit you best and think about what results you would like to achieve. You know that you need to change something, but you’re not quite ready to get going with it properly yet. Sometimes this stage is a long one – maybe you know that you need to muster up the courage to try to edge your way along a path, but at other times the process may be rapid from your becoming aware that you need to make a change to your actually making a decision. Don’t get stuck at this stage for too long. Don’t be afraid of making wrong decisions. You can always experiment with different methods and see what suits you best. Start with something and, if it doesn’t suit you, just carry on with something else. It’s better to start doing something than not to do anything at all.

Decision – At this stage, you make your decision. This is where you have come to believe it can work for you. You feel motivated and can clearly see the opportunities and results ahead of you. A decision always comes from within. There are elements that you are motivated by and that lead to a decision. The more deep-seated your decision is in your mind, and the clearer you are as to why you want to change your behaviour, the more motivation and energy you’ll be able to draw on further down the road. If you’ve just been persuaded by someone else to make the change, or are doing it because your doctor said you had to, it will be more difficult to make the change. Think about what is really driving you.

The active stages 

Changed behaviour – Once you’ve made a decision, the change process starts. At the beginning, you may feel both strong and optimistic, yet in uncharted waters and uncertain at the same time. It may feel overwhelming, and you may feel a long way outside your comfort zone. You may also feel invincible and crack on too hard with your new habits, going hell for leather to the extent that you risk injury while exercising, eating too much of a monotonous diet, or giving up completely because it all feels too new and too difficult. Give yourself time to get going. You and your body need some time to get used to your new habits and to understand how they work. You need to build up your health and your routines, and that can take a bit of time. So, be patient at the outset, and reduce the level of difficulty by a few notches so that you can cope with it for the long haul.

New habits – After a while, your new behaviour will become a new habit. It can take a bit of practice to get used to a new habit in your life, so at the beginning you need to put in a whole lot of time thinking about and planning your new habits. This is when the process may feel rather tiresome, as though you’re not doing anything besides thinking about your new habits. Some days may feel quite tough, but you’ll start to glimpse some tiny bits of progress as well. These might be subtle, such as you might suddenly start to sleep a little better or to feel happier and brighter in yourself. You may also see changes in your body such as it becoming slimmer and more supple. These small successes will give you fresh motivation to continue, so look out for them. If you had unrealistic expectations from the outset, you may feel that nothing is happening at this stage. You may think that you should already have achieved your goal by now. That’s when it’s all too easy to lose your motivation and, although the results are starting to show, there is a risk that you’ll give up too soon. So, it’s important to be patient at this stage, and just hang in there. It’s not going to be like this forever. At the end of this stage, you’ll start to notice that you’re getting into your habits more and more and that you need to think about them less and less.

Relapse back into old habits – At the start of your period of change, you’ll think you might never fall back into your old habits. That’s when you should pay particular attention. The fact is that relapses are a natural part of all efforts to achieve change. It’s not the same as failure – it’s a part of the process. You may find you have a relapse when you’re starting to feel comfortable in your new habits, before you are really stuck into them. Maybe you relax a bit, and hey presto, you’re back in your old pattern of behaviour. A relapse can also happen if something unexpected happens in your life. That might be an intense period at work, an argument with a friend or that a family member is unwell for a while. The earlier you happen to be in your stage of change, the less it takes for you to have a relapse from your new habits. Then it’s easy to kick yourself and feel a failure, hopeless to have fallen back into your old habits. Don’t see it as a personal failure – see it as a natural part of the process you’re going through. Every relapse also has an important message for you. It tells you what you need to practise or change. Try to understand why it turned out as it did and what you can do differently next time around instead of beating yourself up about it.

The establishing stages 

Get back into your new habits – Starting over again and again after having fallen back into old patterns is a part of the change process, and it is the people who manage to do this who achieve the results they want. Practising coming back after a relapse is also important. At the beginning, it might take a few days before you get back on the right track, but after a while you’ll get quicker and quicker at bouncing back into your new habits and you’ll learn to correct your relapses quickly so that they don’t impact so much on your health.

Established routines – It may feel a long way off at the moment, but your new habits will gradually become routines in your life. Then it won’t feel any stranger to go and exercise than to brush your teeth every day. Then you won’t need to think about what you’re doing when you go into a shop – you’ll know what products you’re going to buy and how you’re going to cook them. When your new habits have become established routines, you won’t need to consciously think about them so much – you’ll do them automatically. Your body will have got used to your new habits and will miss healthy food and exercise if it doesn’t get them in time. It may take quite a long time to establish new routines, but there are tricks to make it easier. Simplifying and systematising as much as possible is one such trick. So, eating the same type of breakfast every day makes it easier to create a good breakfast routine than if you eat all sorts of different breakfasts every day. Scheduling your exercise at the same time each day also makes it easier to create a routine around that. Another trick is to connect your new habits to things you already have routines doing. So, for example, if you always take the children to a class on Tuesdays, you can take the opportunity to exercise right then. If you have a coffee break every afternoon, you can take the opportunity to have a snack then as well. Remember that you can have a relapse even once your routines are established, but it’s also often easier to get going with them again.

To sum up, changing your lifestyle is a process that takes time and energy. It’s a long-term process that follows a certain pattern, and you can be more successful with the change you want to make if you know the different stages of the change process. That may also mean you escape the risk of giving up your efforts to change before you’ve achieved the results you want.

By Malin Randeniye, registered dietitian