As we move further into the New Year, many of us are working to stay on top of our resolutions and start tackling our health and wellness objectives. Fortunately, Cigna and Evernorth health coaches have a wealth of experience helping people achieve success. At the beginning of each year, they tend to hear the same questions: How can I lose weight? How can I quit smoking? How can I get healthier? How can I make this a lasting lifestyle change? How can I manage stress in times such as these?
We spoke with five coaches who spend their days working one-on-one with people across the United States and asked them to share their wisdom. The coaches’ tips and words of encouragement may be just what we need to help us along the road to healthier habits.
Be SMART About Health and Fitness Goals
When setting a health and well-being goal, it's important to look at the long term, said Suzanne Ward, who is a registered nurse, registered dietitian, and certified health coach. “Think of it as a lifestyle, something long term,” she said.
Cigna health coaches help people come up with SMART goals, an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.
“Keep your goals to a max of two or three. Keep it attainable, keep the scope manageable. When we set unrealistic goals, we can tend to feel defeated.”Suzanne Ward, registered nurse, registered dietitian, and certified health coach at Evernorth
Health Educator Paige Richards starts by asking people what they hope to accomplish. She looks at the big picture: Have you achieved this goal before? How long has it been since you were at that point? “We’ll talk about whether people are ready to go straight to it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s figuring out what their motivation is to get them back on track.”
The people who are most successful have heartfelt and meaningful goals, said Bridget Moore, a master certified health education specialist. “Start with your end goal in mind,” she said. “Consider what reaching this goal would mean to you. Focus on how this lifestyle will make you feel.”
Nothing Succeeds Like … Moderation
Kelly Hull, who has a degree in exercise physiology, suggests focusing on one goal at a time and starting with small steps. If your health goal is to drink more water, begin by adding an 8-ounce glass each morning. If you want to cook more meals, don’t set yourself up for failure by pledging to spend hours doing a week’s worth of prep work. Many of Hull’s clients tell her they don’t like to cook and are short on time, but they want to feed their families better. She suggests preparing a few healthy double-duty recipes each week, such as a stir-fry that can be used for fajitas one day and on a salad another.
“Moderation is also a key to success,” said Alicia Foerster, a registered dietitian and health educator. For example, many diets fail because they are too restrictive. A small amount of a favorite food can satisfy a craving and help keep you on track.
“You can have those ‘no’ foods. You just have to have them in moderation, and plan them into your day.”Alicia Foerster, registered dietitian and health educator at Evernorth Direct Health
Ward also said to acknowledge the victories along the way. “Think about the progression you’re making with those little steps. They will add up. Life is not linear, we know that. Life is up and down; we certainly have learned that over the past few years.”
Don’t Overlook the Effects of Stress
Stress management is the key to healthy behaviors, Moore said – yet it’s also something that people tend to overlook.
“Obviously the pandemic is making things difficult. That’s just a given nowadays,” Richards said. “We talk a ton about stress right now, for multiple reasons.”
One common issue is work-life balance, Moore said. Almost two years into the pandemic, parents might be juggling jobs and periods of home schooling, for example. “Once you figure out the source of the stress, you can figure out if there’s something you can do to fix that head on,” she said. That might take the form of a quick walk outdoors, a family game night, or a Zoom call to socialize with friends. “There has to be a focus on emotional wellness too, and sometimes that should come first.”
“If we’re not managing our stress properly, that can affect our quality of life. Not everyone is prioritizing mental health. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s scary.”Bridget Moore, master certified health education specialist at Cigna
Cigna offers a number of stress-reduction resources for its employees, Ward said, including behavioral health coaches and app-based activities. Many other employers offer resources – for details, people should check with their HR departments.
For lasting success, Richards coaches her clients to think about controlling stress vs. managing stress. “You can manage your reaction, but you cannot control the stressors,” she said. She works to guide clients to that “aha moment,” when they realize they’ve been trying to control what’s causing their stress rather than their responses.
If Your Motivation Lags, Remember That You’re Not Alone
According to Richards, it's important to remember that our efforts to change don’t happen in a vacuum. Staying motivated is a challenge for just about everyone. The isolation we feel from working at home can cause a roadblock, as can the anxiety of working outside the home.
“At times, just about everyone struggles to stay motivated. Some days it’s harder than others.”Paige Richards, health educator at Cigna
“If somebody says I have to do this, they don’t want to do it,” Hull said. Change is hard: “It’s a constant retraining of your brain. It’s not about the willpower, it’s about rethinking the negatives.”
Moore motivates herself with a vision board, lists of significant words, and a list of goals. “I check in at least quarterly to make sure I am seeking opportunities to allow these goals to happen,” she said.
Hull guides her clients to creative solutions. If a parent of young children is trying to get more exercise, Hull might suggest putting on some music and dancing with them. "Little kids love to be chased and tickled,” she said. Her child loved horsey-back rides. “I engaged with my child, and I got my workout in.”
When the ultimate goal is weight loss, she said, try to focus first on “non-scale victories.” For example, aim to complete four workouts in a week or choose fruit for a snack instead of candy.
“Losing weight is the end result of successfully changing behaviors over time.”Kelly Hull, health coach at Evernorth Direct Health
When getting together with family and friends, Moore recommends thinking of lifestyle changes in terms of non-food ways to bond. If you have diabetes, and your aunt is known for baking a delicious pie – and tends to be insulted if you don’t indulge – think about alternatives like a walk together instead of sitting at the table. “That can be the challenge,” she said – but, like making other lifestyle changes, it’s well worth the effort.
Learn more about Cigna health coaches in the video below: