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Healthy Living in Community: How to meet your goals by creating a weekly action plan

Andi WaismanAndi WaismanAs we reach the end of 2018, many people will be thinking about what changes they’d like to make in the new year. Eating healthier and exercising often top the lists of resolutions. Yet, as we all know, the path between setting a goal and reaching it can be fraught with many obstacles. We struggle with survival needs; we struggle with addictions; we struggle with managing all the demands on our time and attention.

Change is hard, but change is also possible. Here in the Healthy Living program at LifePath, we run programs that are proven to help people take control over their chronic health conditions, in part by exploring ways to make more behavior changes happen. People who have participated in our evidence-based programs over the years generally have fewer symptoms, such as depression, shortness of breath, anxiety, pain, mobility limitations, and have better quality of life, exercise more, and usually utilize health care less. Something in the recipe of these self-management workshops works.

The behavior change principle that underlies many of our programs is the concept of self-efficacy, the belief that we can perform the targeted behavior. How do we enhance people's confidence in their ability to manage their chronic conditions and other aspects of their lives?

Action planning

One of the major tools in our self-management workshop “toolbox” that help to build self-efficacy is the tool of action planning. For about 25 to 35 percent of each weekly session, we each take turns making a specific action plan, sharing it with the group, and brainstorming solutions to the barriers that keep us from accomplishing our plan. It is through action planning that people begin to feel in control of their fate, begin to grow their confidence in their ability to make changes, and see some hope that improvement is possible.

Given a structure and support, all of us usually make good decisions about our health and get motivated to make and complete goals we want to achieve. For this reason, the group leaders and peers never tell people what to do but rather support them in what they choose to do, even when the group or their doctor might have other goals for them. By asking people to make action plans and report on these plans, participants are gently persuaded and supported to try new activities they truly want for themselves.

How does action planning work?

Sometimes it can be overwhelming to think about the changes we want to make or the activities we want to accomplish. They seem too big to work on all at once, which makes it hard to get started. So, action planning asks people to commit to attempting, in front of a group of people, a small, “doable” action step, one that is achievable, specific, and answers the questions of what, how much, when, and how often.

For example, a person who wants to improve fitness might break this goal into several steps over the course of a few weeks:
  1. Research what type of exercise to do.
  2. Find a place to exercise.
  3. Start an exercise program by walking for five minutes, two or three times a week.
  4. Ask a friend to exercise with them.

Each step should be action-specific. For example, losing weight is not an action or behavior, but replacing processed food snacks with fruit between meals is.

Peer support and accountability are important aspects of this technique. The thought of facing their group and having to admit that they blew off their plan is, for some, the motivator to complete it.

We are continually impressed with the action plans our participants commit to and complete. Some of these have been:
  • Taking an art and wine class
  • Keeping an eating journal
  • Walking 20 minutes a day
  • Scheduling regular meals for one week
  • Take a shorter nap during the day
  • Limiting an evening snack to fruits or vegetables
  • Joining a gym
  • Going to sleep by 10:30 on two nights
  • Putting a positive statement on the mirror
  • Doing the shoulder exercises in the book
  • Standing up at least 25 times during the day
  • Drinking a glass of water before eating
  • Calling a parent every day

Sometimes we don’t accomplish our plan. We run into barriers: the weather, a spouse who buys food we don't want to eat, our lack of motivation, or our too busy lives. We then work together to brainstorm solutions to those barriers. We pick a solution to try and start again. I believe it is this restart – this human instinct to set goals for ourselves for our immediate future, to see the possibility ahead – that grows our confidence.

Try action planning

Even if you can’t attend a LifePath workshop, you can still try action planning on your own. Find a friend to make a weekly date with. Support each other to think of a small, specific, doable action plan that you each really want to accomplish over the coming week, and then check in to see how it went. Also, try calling your friend in the middle of the week to remind them of what they wanted to accomplish and express that you have faith in them; see how gratifying that feels.

At this turn of the year, when we naturally are drawn to new year’s resolutions to start fresh with hopes and dreams for the year ahead, know that the folks at LifePath are cheering you on and want to hear about your successes and challenges.

Learn more about Healthy Living workshops.

In addition to the workshops, the Healthy Living Program offers a monthly alumni group where graduates from any of the workshops support each other in making and accomplishing our action plans. The alumni group meets on the first Thursday of the month, from 2:00-3:45 p.m., at the Greenfield Senior Center.

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