Real-life stories inspire healthy changes

(Edmonton) No time of year triggers healthy lifestyle changes quite like January, when gym membership sales spike, dieters slim down and smokers butt out. But the University of Alberta’s Lisa Bélanger has some insight about what inspires people to make changes year-round—and stick to them.

“There’s no pill you can take, there’s no 30-minute abs, there’s no fast, quick way to become healthy,” says Bélanger, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. “Being healthy means daily maintenance and making simple changes—small changes can make a huge impact.”

Bélanger, 27, studies how exercise affects cancer, and through her work interacts with people facing life-and-death struggles that make lifestyle changes a necessity, not an option. She compiled some of the most moving stories—along with an ample dose of leading science—for a new book called Inspire Me Well.

Part of Bélanger’s goal in sharing these personal stories is to encourage people to make changes before illness forces it upon them. It’s a subject to which she’s devoted her life ever since her best friend in high school, Jane Knight, lost her battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“That has inspired everything I do at the U of A and has inspired me throughout writing the book and most of the things I do in life,” says Bélanger.

It’s a passion she shares with co-author, Edmonton-based dietitian and UAlberta alumna Sarah O’Hara. The duo blogged about health and wellness for a year before deciding to put pen to paper for a book. Their main goal? Inspire people to make lifestyle changes before health is an issue.

“People ask me every day if what I do is depressing, but it’s the complete opposite. It’s unbelievably inspiring every day,” Bélanger says. “The cancer patients I have had the privilege to work with have had that amazing outlook on health and also life.”

When attempting to turn over a new leaf—be it at New Year’s or any time of year—Bélanger says stick to three points.

1. Emotionally connect to your goal. If you want to be more active to keep up with grandkids, remind yourself of that.

2. Make a plan. If you live in a winter city and it’s cold, walk inside a mall or indoor track.

3. Have fun. If you want to eat more leafy greens, make sure they’re part of a meal that actually tastes good. If you’re exercising, play a favourite sport or pass the time with music you like.

“If you do not enjoy it, you will not continue it,” Bélanger says.

When in doubt, keep it simple, says O’Hara, pointing to actions such as eating a whole orange instead of drinking orange juice for the additional nutrients and fibre, or walking or taking the stairs instead of an elevator.

“Make between one and three small goals that you can set for a month and then come back and see how you do,” she says.

Turning to fad diets or exercising too fast, too hard isn’t the answer, adds Belanger.

“On your deathbed, you’re not going to say, ‘I wish I did more sit-ups.’ You have to take care of yourself so you can live the life you want. Health is something we have to do daily to maintain, and people usually don’t recognize that until it’s not there anymore.”