“Focused on improving overall health” was the top response to the “What paramedics want in 2023” survey question, “What non-work-related activities have you done in the past 3 years to manage your stress?” For the select all that apply question, 19% of respondents chose overall health over options like accessed clergy/chaplain/faith-based group, sought counseling services, sought new hobbies/activities and increased time with friends or family.
It is good news that paramedics want to prioritize their overall health, which was described as a focus on sleep, nutrition and/or exercise. We should all strive to sleep more and better, eat less and better, and exercise more often. Reasonable goals for overall health might include:
Reaching those goals requires stopping bad unhealthy habits, adopting new healthy habits, continuing those habits to meet the goal and continuing the habit toward maintaining or reaching a new goal.
New habits are the bridge between our current state and the goal state, but many health and wellness discussions overlook the importance of habits to achieving the goal state. Eat better and walk more aren’t habits; they are loose directives. A habit is regular, reoccurring and often done without consciously thinking about it. Habits become part of a daily routine that shapes our identity. A collection of habits is the difference between, “I go running” and “I am a runner.”
The new self-identity shaped by the accumulation and repetition of habits, begets additional habits in support of the identity. When a goal transitions from “cook one healthy meal per day” to “become an expert home chef who specializes in cooking with locally sourced ingredients,” habits form, well beyond the kitchen, to meal planning, grocery shopping, creating community connections and building a new skillset.
Are you focusing on improving your overall health? Do you have a goal you’d like to reach? Here are few habit tips to get from your current state of knowing you want to make a change to actually changing.
- Start small then stack small habits together. Your goal might be big and audacious – run a marathon next year – but if you’re not a runner now, it is going to take a lot of new habits to become a marathoner. A walking habit, 10 minutes before and after work, is a great start. As regular walking becomes a habit and part of your daily routine, extend the time spent walking and incorporate slow jogging when you are ready to increase your distance.
At the mid-point of her 30-day ice bath challenge, Sarah Calams, Lexipol senior editor, discusses how habit stacking works.
- Work on the habit, not the goal. Between-meal snacking, especially easy-to-access processed foods, is my Achille’s heel to achieving my goal of losing weight. I recognize that I have a bad habit that needs to be replaced with a healthier habit to replace the crunch of chips with the crunch of carrot and celery sticks. Creating and maintaining a new snacking habit will help me reach my goal.
- Understand the “if this, then that” of unhealthy habits. A sleep tracker has been revelatory to my understanding of the quality and duration of my sleep. The impact of moderate alcohol consumption, even as little as one beer, is clearly evident in my sleep duration and quality of sleep data. The connection of – if I drink beer, then I will sleep poorly and if sleep poorly, my run training will be suffer – has driven me to significantly reduce my alcohol consumption, because my preferred identity is runner, not beer drinker.
- Track your habit progress. Remember the goal is the other side of the bridge. To get there requires the creation and continuation of habits. Use a pen and paper calendar, smartphone app or spreadsheet to track the practice of a habit. If a small habit becomes a routine, stop tracking that habit and track the next habit that comes from that habit. The next habit after regularly reading one research article a week to improve your clinical knowledge might be to participate in an in-person or virtual journal club.
- Compete or go public, if it helps you. Some people find it helpful and motivating to share their progress or streaks with family, friends and colleagues. Adding a competitive element can provide additional motivation or it can be a demotivator. Calams is sharing her 30-day ice bath challenge on YouTube. She’s also written about her why and what she’s hoping to gain.
- Join a habit group. For many people, the best way to eat healthier and move more is to be with other people who already have or are working on the habit you want to have. Join a running group, enroll in a cooking class, show up to a support group or create your own book club. A good habit group helps each other in a supportive way. If it is helpful to you, you can also ask friends, family or colleagues to help hold you accountable to your habits. Be specific about what you are asking from them and even how they can help get you back on track with a habit.
- Plan ahead for forgiveness and getting back on track. Life is unpredictable, especially for EMS providers. As you form a new habit, plan ahead for how you will get back on track. Missing a daily after-work walk might end a streak, but it doesn’t need to be the end of the daily walking habit. Start your next walk with a moment of forgiveness and then look ahead to starting a new streak.
- Envision your desired identity. The accomplishment of a goal might be fleeting if it isn’t accompanied by a shift in mindset and identity. A person becomes a runner when their running-related habits are supported by the mindset shift from “I have to go running” to “I get to go running.” One person runs. The other person is a runner. What is your desired identity?
Here are a few books on habits I have found useful. Send me a message with your book recommendations and other tips for forming lasting, healthy habits for improving overall health.
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