It is the time we spend on our own, making day to day decisions that can often have greatest impact on our overall health. In fact, most of the time we spend dealing with our health is not spent in a health care provider’s office at all!
“Managing my own health is just part of my life,” says Dot, 83, of Burlington. “I’ve had my own problems, and when I’ve overcome those it made me conscious of how much control I actually have over my own health. You have the choice—you can’t slough off!”
Self-managing our health is always a decision. Whether that decision is to be active and work on improving or maintaining our fitness, or a decision to do nothing and gradually lose the ability to do the things we want. The choice is ours. “Don’t indirectly choose to give up,” advises Dot.
Dot sets a goal for herself and mentally checks in toward the end of the day. “I say to myself, ‘Have you done at least half an hour of some kind of activity today? Did you walk with a friend, did you garden, did you ride your bike?’” If the answer is no, she’ll try to sneak something in, even if it’s simply “putting on music and dancing to it walking from the bedroom to the laundry to do wash.”
To be successful in changing a habit, the first step is to create a very specific goal, otherwise known as a SMART goal (specific, measureable, achievable, realistic, and timely). Dot’s SMART goal is “I will be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day by walking with a friend, gardening, riding my bike, or dancing.” By being specific, Dot will be successful!
Like any path in life, being an active self-manager isn’t always easy. Sometimes there are obstacles, and sometimes it’s smooth sailing; sometimes the path is flat, sometimes it’s bumpy. The trick is to keep moving ahead in a positive way.
Recently, while riding on the bike path “The hedge caught my handlebar while I was rounding a corner and I just flew off onto the grass,” says Dot. “I could have decided ‘Well I’m just getting too old to be riding a bike! But I checked myself out, saw I wasn’t hurt – though I admit my pride was bruised. And since I was more than a mile from home, I got back on and headed home.” Dot doesn’t want to stop riding—it gives her joy and keeps her healthy.
Dot’s example of having a spill on her bicycle illustrates another wonderful concept in successful goal setting: “if…then” statements. Dot had a plan already in place in case her bike ride didn’t work out. “IF I fall on my bicycle while riding, I will THEN check for any injuries or damage to my bike, and if able, complete my ride.”
Rather than throwing in the towel, Dot followed the plan she had in place ahead of time and was able to be successful at her goal rather than be sidelined by an unforeseen obstacle thrown in her way.
A former college-level health instructor, Dot’s advice for staying active is to “start wherever you are.” “Find the easy places you can do it. Are you sitting in a chair? Then rock! You’re moving your legs and ankles. Don’t get up to get a cookie. Get up and get a glass of water and waltz into the kitchen; don’t just plod!”
Dot realizes that you need to be realistic when setting a goal for change. Saying that you are going to run three miles three times a week is not realistic when you’re not yet walking one mile once a week. As Dot shows, start small and build on that success.
Dot also acknowledges it can be hard finding things to do if you don’t know anyone. Her advice is to join a group sight unseen and the group becomes new friends. “Or sign up with a friend to try something new together. If you’re both trying to convince yourselves, two is better than one!”
Still trying to become active? Here’s another great tip from Dot: reward yourself. “I reward myself at the end of a ride if it was hard, or a cold and damp day. I ring up a friend before I go and say let’s have a cup of tea, or I invite them over after I get back. I have one friend who puts a dollar into a jar every time she does her exercise and by the end of the week she has about 10 dollars. She rewards herself by going shopping the following week. Another friend alternates getting her fingernails and toes done weekly if she follows through with being active.”
Dot makes managing her own health a priority on a daily basis, with simple, easy to use techniques. “It feels better to be healthy than it does to be sick or negative about it,” she says.
Try a few of Dot’s suggestions, and share your ideas for successfully managing your own health.
Robyn Skiff is medical home self-management program coordinator at University of Vermont Medical Center.