Since her 2009 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Dr. Lisa Doggett has come to realize MS is no excuse to avoid challenges. Instead, it has propelled her to run two marathons, hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and complete a 168-mile bike ride to raise awareness for MS. She is currently working on a memoir about her journey from doctor to patient. 

I did not have the ideal workout space during a recent trip to Costa Rica, but I have promised myself to exercise every morning, no matter what. I’m proud that I made it happen.

As a family physician for 16 years, I have spent a substantial part of my career counseling patients about how to live a healthier life – how to develop new habits and stick to them. And as a patient with a chronic illness, I’ve incorporated some healthy changes into my own life (like daily exercise and meditation) to do whatever I can to reduce the risk of disease progression. Acquiring new habits at any age can be difficult, but it can also be empowering and life-changing.

Here are some suggestions for how to develop new healthy habits and stick to them:

1) Clarify your reasons for making the change. You might even write them down and review them regularly. Make sure you have reasons that YOU believe are compelling. You are less likely to be successful if you are changing just to please someone else.

2) Build accountability. Tell someone you respect, whose opinion matters to you, and who will support your change.

3) Make a plan, a reasonable plan. Don’t say, I’m going to run the marathon this year if you can’t run a mile yet. Don’t say I’m never going to eat dessert again if you love dessert. Think about your true capabilities and commit to something you really will be able to accomplish. Then break down your goal into small, manageable steps and get started.

4) Find a way to make the change fun. To make exercise better, make a great workout mix or listen to a podcast or audiobook. Exercise with a friend or join a class. When I started exercising regularly back in medical school, my exercise of choice was to spend 30 minutes on the Stairmaster. I don’t really like the Stairmaster, but I made it bearable with a treat: a good book. Instead of the usual medical textbooks I used to study, I read novels. Sometimes I actually looked forward to the Stairmaster.

5) Schedule the new activity into your day or week. I exercise every day. I know I will do it every morning, and then I don’t have to make the decision every day about whether or not to exercise.

6) Keep your promises, especially to yourself. If you commit to eat more veggies, walk every evening, or join a spin class every Thursday, don’t flake out! If you have a tendency to give up on yourself, maybe the first new habit to develop is to follow through on promises to yourself.

One of the most recent positive changes I made was about a year and a half ago: I initiated Family Meetings with my husband and kids. Like many families, we have very busy schedules and often struggle to keep everything straight. To contain the chaos of our lives, we started to meet every Sunday evening. I write an agenda ahead of time, and we talk about issues that are important to us and review the weekly schedule. The meeting time is on the calendar. Now it’s a habit. Everyone expects it, and we have a treat afterward – usually a fun TV series that we watch together. Here is a great article I found about family meetings:

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