The (Surprising) Secrets of Long-term Success

Good intentions. They might just be the death of us.

New Year’s resolutions are usually about changing habits and practices with the goal of somehow becoming a better (usually healthier) person. It’s no accident that all the holiday commercials, many featuring yummy foods and relaxing gatherings, are replaced in early January with advertisements for gyms and for diet plans, books and shake powders.

In graduate school, I worked part time for a bakery that made delicious specialty breads, with flavors such as cinnamon crumble, sweet potato and lemon-blueberry. Each year in December, the bakery would hire extra staff, and we would labor through many long days. Beginning December 26, the owner would take a two-week vacation and close the bakery. “That’s our slow season,” he would explain. Business, however, always picked back up in early February, just in time for Valentine’s Day. “By then,” he said, “people have given up on their New Year’s resolutions.”

The owner of the gym where I work out has experienced the same phenomenon. Well-intentioned souls flood the small circuit-workout franchise in early January. Longtime regulars discover that the place has become crowded. A few newcomers will stick with it — but within a month or two, many of those who were initially eager to exercise have faded away. By Easter, the population has diminished to pre-holiday numbers.

We’ve all done the same thing, haven’t we? Made attempts to lose weight, to cut salt from our diets, to get moving, to quit smoking, actually to follow our doctors’ medically sound advice for improved health. Yet it seems that many of us don’t stay the course. What can we do to make sure our good intentions become good practices?

February 19, 2018, marked two years since my heart attack. A combination of family history and, frankly, lousy habits had resulted in 50 excess pounds and a 90 percent and 70 percent blockage of my left anterior descending coronary artery.

I could have died. And at the time, I was just shy of 49. Instead, a skilled and caring team of cardiologists and nurses saved my life. And I have made the necessary changes — and stuck to those changes — to still be going strong.

What has made the difference? Why is it that, two years out, I’ve lost more than 40 pounds and kept them off and still reach for salads and salmon instead of big burgers and sugary sweets? And, of equal importance, why is it that when I get home after work and a long commute, I still lace up my sneakers and head back out to the gym four, five, or even six days a week?

In short, what’s my secret?

The truth is: there is no one secret. Motivation looks different for each of us. I can tell you only what has worked for me, and hope that in my story, you will find something that works for you.

SECRET #1 Learn your family history

I was well aware of my family history. My father, then 61, successfully underwent a multiple-bypass surgery in 1997. The doctors had found that, despite healthy eating habits and abstinence from tobacco, Dad had an artery that was 100 percent blocked at the top and 90 percent blocked at the bottom. By the time of the successful surgery, he’d had to stop and rest while brushing his teeth.

I knew that risk. By itself, it didn’t prompt me into healthy habits. But I have found that after my heart attack, I take my family history much more seriously.

Before, I did not engage in anything that could even loosely be called exercise. My preferred hobbies of reading, knitting and movies were all sedentary. I used a long commute as an excuse for dinner to either be fast-food takeout or a family-size frozen casserole with alarming amounts of fat, sugar and sodium.

Nevertheless, the heart attack took me by surprise. For the first day or two, I was focused only on the medical emergency at hand. Once the acute nature of the situation ebbed, however, my primary emotion was — indignation. I was angry. I was seriously ticked off. How dare a heart attack come into my life!

I know now that it was anger born of fear — the kind of emotional surge that leads a parent to holler at a missing child who has turned up safe.

SECRET #2 Embrace your fears

And it’s safe to say that fear was the primary motivator for me at first. It was fear that led me to shuffle up the street for the prescribed five minutes on my first day home from the hospital. It was fear that prompted me to turn from highly processed food that had to be unwrapped and to resolve to consume foods closer to their naturally grown state. And because I was relatively young, and because I knew that I might have died, that fear carried me a good way along. I did not want to die, and I did not want to have another heart attack — that had been a gruesome experience I had no desire to repeat.

Studies have shown that it takes about 10 weeks for a practice to become a habit. I’m fortunate in that the combination of fear and anger that scalded me into action was strong enough to get me through the 10-week mark.

But something else was happening: My body was sending me signals that I just couldn’t ignore.

I felt good.

SECRET #3 Listen to your body

For the first time in I couldn’t remember how long, I wasn’t dragging through my days. I no longer felt sluggish and unfocused after lunch. Not only my heart but my lungs, limbs and muscles were responding to the welcome infusion of focused, weight-bearing exercise, leafy greens, fresh fruits, and simple lean proteins. As I walked, I could feel my muscle groups working together. Sleep came more easily and was more restful. I woke refreshed and ready for the day.

I felt good — and it felt good to feel good. I was finding myself less and less tempted by highly processed foods. When I did indulge, I disliked the greasy aftertaste in my mouth and the way the snacks sat heavily in my stomach.

I wanted to keep feeling good, and I knew that healthy eating choices were a big part of that. But exercise — regular, vigorous exercise — was the other part of the equation.

SECRET #4 Find exercise that works for you — and know that it might take several tries

The first exercise program didn’t work for me. I joined a local gym that was low-cost and large. At first, I made myself go three days a week, but the distance from my house and the 90 minutes that the workout consumed took a big chunk out of the day. Before many weeks had passed, I found myself going only one day a week. I knew that was not what the doctor ordered. I needed a program that would work for me, and the fear and family history still in my mind told me that it was no longer good enough to say, “Well, I tried,” and go back to sitting on the couch.

“Convenience often feels great,” writes columnist and pastor Peter Marty, “but it’s not an unalloyed good. If I exercise only when it’s convenient, or drink coffee only from paper cups, these choices do not make a good life. Inconveniences can hold their own deep value, especially when they ask us to experience a larger life than the one we typically design around our personal comfort.” I wanted that good life, and I wanted it enough to value it more — much more — than convenience.

Near my house was a location of a national franchise that offered circuit workouts in only 30 minutes. That sounded great. I found myself signing up, still a little skeptical. Eighteen months later, I still go. Most weeks I’m there five times a week. Why does it work for me? It’s a franchise, which means that when I travel I can often find a location, check in and have my workout. The locations are typically small and even intimate. The trainer knows members by name and provides coaching, encouragement and monthly check-ins. The smaller setting was exactly what I needed.

SECRET #5 Find exercise buddies

And so was the personal attention. At a critical point in my new lifestyle, I had found in the franchise owner someone who would function as cheerleader, coach and sounding board. A woman like me: past 40 and menopausal. Even on days when I absolutely, positively do not want to work out, I go anyway — partly because I feel better for having exercised, but equally because I know it makes the trainer happy when I do. The other gym members are supportive and friendly. We all have our own stories, health issues and motivations. It’s a support group. We sweat together, we complain together and we cheer each other on.

REV. BETH WOODARD is a full-time chaplain for nursing homes operated by Lutheran Services Carolinas in Winston- Salem and Clemmons, North Carolina, and the Interim Pastor of St. Michael Lutheran Church in High Point. She lives in Greensboro with her family.

SECRET #6 Remember your past so you’re not condemned to repeat it

I don’t want to experience a heart attack ever again. I know that I bore a lot of responsibility for the one I had, and that I really do have to eat right and exercise to give my heart a fighting chance. That’s part of what helps me stay motivated. The physical good feeling I get from giving my body the whole grains, leafy greens and lean proteins that it wants — that’s part of the equation as well. And the last, and maybe the most important piece, is the support group I have found in my exercise buddies — women like me who expect me to show up and sweat alongside them. So I do.


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