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Categories > Heart Health > Cardiac rehabilitation

Cross your heart

If anything good can be said about a crisis, it’s that it offers us a chance for real, honest-to-goodness change. Nobody knows this better than someone who’s suffered a heart attack or stroke. In fact, you couldn’t ask for a better motivator to quit smoking, start exercising and lose weight. The trick, however, is staying motivated once you’re out of the hospital and the immediate danger has passed.

Whether you or a loved one must make some heart-healthy changes, these six simple tips can help:

1. Believe in yourself. Many Americans have managed to quit smoking. But not all succeeded on their first attempt. Just because you’ve failed at something once, twice or maybe even 10 times doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It simply means you weren’t ready yet.

2. Set a goal. This may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many people set out to do something without knowing exactly what it is they want to do. Their vague promises “to do better” or “to be good” may be sincere, but they’re not goals. Goals are specific: “I want to lower my cholesterol 20 points by my next doctor’s appointment.”

3. Make it reasonable. If you wanted to learn to pole-vault, would you set the bar at 18 feet for your first jump? Of course not; you’d never make it to the other side. It’s the same with goals—don’t set them so high that you set yourself up for failure. Instead, take it easy and aim for short-term targets you can reach. Remember, it’s a lot easier to lose five pounds than 50.

4. Have a plan. How are you going to reach your goal? Small, calculated steps will carry you a lot farther than vague leaps. Instead of promising to eliminate all fat from your diet, vow to switch from whole milk to skim. Likewise, don’t tell yourself you’ll exercise more; commit to walking 30 minutes a day, most days of the week. Be specific and follow through completely on one goal before moving on to the next. Record your progress in a journal and review it often: There’s no better motivator than success.

5. Focus on the benefits. How do you feel after reading the following statement? “Every cigarette you smoke takes 12 minutes off your life.” Guilty? Depressed? Pressured? Scared? If you thought, “What’s the use in quitting now? The damage is already done,” you’re not alone. Sometimes we think bad news will encourage us to make positive changes, but often it has just the opposite effect. It upsets us so much, we reach for the nearest security blanket—whether it’s a cigarette or a chocolate-chip cookie.

Now, ask yourself how you’d feel if, instead, you had read the following: “Within 24 hours of smoking your last cigarette, your chances of a heart attack decrease.” Feel better? Calmer? More optimistic? If your reaction was, “Hey, maybe it’s not too late for me,” you’ve just experienced the power of positive motivation.

6. Build on the past success. Most good things in life don’t come easy—but that doesn’t mean they can’t be done. Whether it’s starting an exercise program after a heart attack or relearning to walk after a stroke, don’t let yourself become so overwhelmed by the task at hand that you give up before you begin to see results. Instead, think back to something you’ve already accomplished that makes you proud, perhaps learning French or mastering Beethoven’s Fifth. It took discipline, hard work and patience, but you reached your goal. And you can again.