By Barbara Broggelwirth, MS, RDN, CDN

Behavioral change can be hard, especially when it comes to things like increasing our physical activity or changing our eating habits. It is hard because if we want results, we must accept that we may have to challenge ourselves to see real change. We need to be proactive in recognizing and breaking through our barriers, otherwise our expectations will remain unfulfilled. In other words, we must get out of our comfort zones. But let’s face it, our comfort zones are just that; comfortable. According to Psychology Today, comfort zones protect our ego from fear of failure. After all, if we don’t try, we can’t fail, right?  But it has the opposite effect. If we don’t try, we are destined not to grow and not to change.

Ugh – that word “challenge”; it sounds so daunting, doesn’t it? Turns out, according to Psychology Today, there are several reasons we don’t challenge ourselves.

  1. Are you tormented by a perfectionism that leads to endless procrastination? You may fear that what you desire to pursue might not yield the ideal outcome you demand of it. For example, you make consistent choices that align with your positive health outcomes but the number on the scale doesn’t reflect all your efforts. Sadly, perfectionism can lead to compromising your motivation and so you give up altogether.
  2. Maybe you lack a sense of self-efficacy, which is the belief in yourself that you can successfully accomplish almost anything you set your mind to. Perhaps you avoid a challenge because you don’t have the faith that you can succeed at it. This may bring up a host of chronic self-doubts that you are not ready to face.
  3. You are governed by fears of failure. In this case, you tried this particular behavior change in the past and were not able to sustain your results. This happens very often with weight management. However, research shows that if you can re-frame those experiences as important learning steps towards this experience, instead of failures, you can begin to adopt a “winning” perspective.

So, how do you challenge yourself without self-sabotaging? It may sound too simple, but challenging yourself with small, consistent changes will compound over time. For example:

  1. Fitness Challenge: If you decide to increase your weights by one-two pounds every time your perceived rate of exertion feels too easy, you will continue to get stronger and build muscle. Or if you want to improve your cardiovascular endurance, you can start by adding five more minutes to your preferred cardio routine.
  2. Diet Challenge: If you want to improve your diet, look for small, sustainable changes that you can build on. Perhaps you can begin by adding one extra serving of vegetables to your meal or a serving of fruit as a snack. Or, if you dine out frequently, maybe begin by substituting dining out meals with home prepared meals. Then, once you have your chosen habit down pat, increase to two extra servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit as a snack or begin home preparing other meals.
  3. Managing Stress: Maybe you want to add meditation to your daily routine to reduce your stress. Instead of committing to ten full minutes, begin with three minutes and incrementally add one more minute once you find that three minutes is attainable.

You see where I am going with this. You start small, then gradually increase the desired behavior by a small percentage once you hit a comfort level. Once you hit your comfort level, challenge yourself to hit the next level.

Most importantly, give yourself the credit you deserve while making these small changes. Our culture rewards large sweeping changes but at the end of the day, what behavior change specialists agree on is the smaller the change, the more lasting the change. We are conditioned to want immediate gratification, so if we can train ourselves to look for that gratification in our small challenges, we will eventually reach out health outcomes and they will be more sustainable.

Barbara Broggelwirth, MS, RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals.