— When Diane Falvey turned 49 in 2008, she gave herself an early 50th birthday present: a healthier run at life.
"I didn't want to turn 50 the way I was feeling," says Falvey, managing editor for a trade publication, who suffered from numerous health issues, including high blood pressure, arthritis and bursitis in one shoulder.
The Centereach, N.Y., woman was also overweight, inactive and constantly tired. She had lost weight numerous times over the years but always gained it back.
But something seemed different this time. "I didn't buy into the hype about quick weight loss," she says. Instead, she set realistic expectations, focused on exercise and portion control and didn't let frustration derail her efforts. In one year, she shed 63 pounds, dropping from 230 to 167 pounds, and transformed from a couch potato into a triathlete, completing several sprint triathlons in 2009.
So how did Falvey do it? That's no doubt a question you might be asking, especially in January, when many of us resolve to get fit. Losing weight and developing a healthy habit (like healthy eating or exercising) are among the top three resolutions for 2010, according to a new survey from day planner maker, FranklinCovey Products.
Calling it quits
But flipping the switch — and making a change — is the easy part. Look at any health club in January, after all, and you'll see plenty of new faces. Come back in March, however, and it's a different story. Almost one-third of us break our resolutions by the end of January, and more than 75 percent call it quits by the end of March.
"It's keeping the switch flipped and maintaining these new behaviors that becomes tricky," says Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology and expert in motivation at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.
Take, for example, Steve Schonberg, who decided to overhaul his life two years ago. In a year, he went from being a sedentary, overweight smoker to a marathon runner. "I wanted to have a high quality of life as I aged, and my habits back then weren't in sync with that," says the 28-year-old publicist from Queens, N.Y., who dropped from a 38 to 32 pants size, became a vegetarian, completed a marathon and kicked the smoking habit.
Schonberg has since slipped out of his regular exercise routine, and although he's kept his vegetarian ways, he's been pigging out more. His weight has begun to climb, putting him back in size 34 pants and making him feel miserable.
"The biggest challenge is that you get motivated to do something, like a marathon, but then it ends, and you have to live your life and keep going," he says, adding that starting a new relationship and changing jobs interfered with his healthy intentions.
"I'm remotivating myself now by setting small goals that I can achieve," he says.
What Schonberg did is the same thing everybody should do whenever they want to make — and maintain — meaningful changes in life: "Go inside yourself and ask some tough questions," Deci says.
For starters, ask yourself why you keep repeating these unhealthy behaviors. "Maybe smoking and eating help you manage anxiety and stress," says Freeman Michaels, author of “Weight Release: A Liberating Journey,” and a life coach in Los Angeles.
For instance, perhaps you're always diving into the ice cream carton because you're seeking comfort. Realizing this may help you consciously decide to instead call a friend or cuddle up with your cat.
Next, figure out where your source of motivation lies. Are people around you pressuring you to make this change? Or do you truly want to change? "If you're doing something because you think you should do it or because other people want you to do it, your chance of success will be low," Deci says. "Instead, you have to get to a place where you deeply believe this is the right thing for you, and you're willing to make sacrifices and pay the price to make it happen."
Unfortunately, there's no easy way to get to this point. Asking yourself two questions can help, Deci says: What do you value in life? And is the way that you're living your life now conducive to those values? You might find that you value family and look forward to the day when you have grandchildren. If you're a smoker, that behavior may not allow you to live long enough to see your grandchildren, and realizing that could be the motivation you need to keep the switch flipped.
The key to keeping your motivation high may be believing in yourself. A recent study in the journal BMC Health found that higher self-efficacy, or confidence in your ability to carry out a behavior, was related to higher physical activity.
In other words, the more confident you are in your abilities, the more likely it is that you'll be physically active.
Dr. Sai Yi Pan, lead study author and epidemiologist with the Public Health Agency of Canada in Ottawa, says confident people are more likely to fit exercise into their daily lives, and not be derailed by obstacles, such as seeing exercise as a huge, time-consuming and unattainable endeavor.
Self-belief is what prompted John Paul Engel, a 41-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa, to overhaul his unhealthy life. In 2008, he stepped on the scale and was devastated to learn he was 265 pounds, double his college weight.
At the time, he was sedentary and eating a highly processed diet that included lots of fast food and decided he needed to make some big changes. So he sat down and wrote out 100 things he wanted to do in his life, including gaining control of his health. His most ambitious goal: Completing an Olympic distance triathlon.
Not only did he finish the triathlon, Engel also lost 85 pounds and launched a new career as a motivational speaker and author of "Project Be the Change," a self-help book.
"When I was a child, my mother always told me I could do whatever I set my sights on," he says. "On the day I stepped on the scale, I remembered her lesson, and that was the switch that did it for me."
Of course, negative self-talk can put the kibosh on self-belief, which is why Deci recommends giving yourself pep talks. "Whenever you hear those doubting voices in your head, tell them to shut up and say to yourself, I've decided to do this, and I can do it," he says.
Falvey has certainly learned to quell those voices, especially with the success she's achieved and what she'll no doubt accomplish in 2010. Her goals now include an Olympic distance triathlon and a half-marathon.
"I can't imagine going back to how I used to be," she says.