A Little More Willpower Can Change Your Life

If music be the food of love, play on," Shakespeare wrote. For many of us, however, food is the food of love: it not only curbs our hunger but gives us pleasure, solace and contentment. We may know what good health requires, but knowledge doesn't translate easily into action. Years or decades go by with lifestyle problems cruising below the radar. Once aware, we ponder change for a long while before implementing it.

The reasons are not hard to fathom. Our appetites--forged in Stone Age settings where food was scarce and physical labor was a daily reality--are not easily suppressed. Our love of certain foods often takes root during childhood, long before we know or care about their nutritional value. And we don't relinquish our pleasures lightly. Nothing predicts failure like the grim anticipation of feeling deprived.

Healthy living is not just an exercise in abstinence. It's about feeling better, looking better and living longer. And as the articles in this issue make clear, it can be more pleasurable than rich desserts. Once you experience the rewards of a wholesome diet, perilous treats lose some of their appeal.

Unfortunately, the world we inhabit rarely encourages exercise or good nutrition. Time pressures lead parents, children and working people to fast food, which is almost always unhealthy. It takes real effort to buy, prepare and eat healthful fare--and still find 30 minutes a day to do something physical. How can a busy person beat the odds?

Pursue knowledge. Education is one of the best predictors of good health. Learning fosters both the desire to live well and the confidence to weigh conflicting prescriptions from different health experts. Solid science leaves ample room for uncertainty and disagreement, but some experts are more expert than others. The more you know, the easier it becomes to sort the useful advice from the flawed. Accurate information also helps combat "optimistic bias," the tendency to assume that statistical risks apply only to other people.

Set reasonable goals. A small but sustainable change is better than a large one relinquished after two weeks. Small changes can give you a sense of mastery, and they can be built upon. Downplay denial. Instead of staying preoccupied with what you can't eat, keep in mind what you're shooting for. Some find it helpful to replace thoughts of the absent cookie with thoughts of feeling better. The first few weeks may be tough, but you'll grow more secure as you experience the payoff. Over time, a healthy routine can feel as natural as a ruinous one.

Master your fate. Psychologists use the term "self-efficacy" to describe people who believe their own efforts make a difference. They see themselves as competent, as having a right to make their own choices rather than waiting for direction from others. Some diet programs smooth the road by selling prepackaged meals. There is nothing wrong with such aids, but programs and counselors are no substitute for inner motivation. People who feel a personal stake in their behavior are the most likely to initiate changes and maintain them. Become your own boss.

Reach out to others. Sometimes it is difficult to strike the right balance with friends and family. They may push too hard or undervalue your efforts. Figure out the kind of support you want, and ask for it. Figure out the kind of support you don't want, and ask for it to stop. Tell people who badger you what the research shows: changes in diet and exercise are motivated by your own wishes and are rarely bolstered by nagging.

Confront obstacles. Stress, anxiety and depression can trap you at the starting gate, so don't ignore them. Consult a professional if psychological barriers are keeping you from acting on your own behalf.

Living healthfully may someday be easier. As consumers seek out healthier choices, food makers will have little choice but to offer them. And as science reveals more about the biology of appetite, researchers may yet find safe, effective ways to curb it. Until then, Shakespeare's dictum is worth heeding. Seek pleasure, solace and contentment by learning an instrument. Then play on.