Living With Diabetes: 9 Ways to Change Your Health Habits

Whether it's exercising more, losing weight, quitting smoking or remembering to take your medicine every day, try these tips to change your health habits.

Updated on March 26, 2024

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It's Time to Make a Change

If you've just been diagnosed with diabetes, now is the time to start making changes that can build healthy habits. Whether it's exercising more, losing weight, quitting smoking or remembering to take your medicine every day, behavior change experts Sheri D. Pruitt, PhD, John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, and Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, offer proven ways to get motivated and live a healthy life with diabetes.

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Let the News of Diabetes Settle

According to author of Changeology, Dr. Norcross, "The first step after a diabetes diagnosis isn't to immediately plunge into action, because premature action born out of fear is likely to boomerang [and may not help]." So, take time to understand diabetes and get ready for changes to come. "It's important to push away from the negative with any scary diagnosis, and double your motivation by using that fear and drawing yourself towards a positive future. That positive future is weight maintenance where you will feel better, glucose [sugar] maintenance where you can concentrate better and aren't so thirsty."

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Set SMART Goals for Diabetes

When changing behavior, have a strategy in mind. One key strategy is SMART: Set a goal; Monitor your progress; Arrange your environment; Recruit support and Treat yourself. It can help to motivate yourself, says Dr. Pruitt. "Answer these questions out loud: What are my reasons for wanting to manage diabetes? Why do I need to manage this condition? How much do I want to be healthy? These are just some of the questions we know from behavioral science that actually drive people's commitment to change their behavior."

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Recruit Your Diabetes Support Team

Lean on your friends, family or online communities for support. "Find someone who wants you to be healthy, and let this person know how you need them to support you. Being accountable to someone beyond yourself is really powerful," according to Dr. Pruitt. Learning to take a new medication everyday is a new habit many people with diabetes need to form, so tell your support team about it. "Keep your pill box next to the coffee maker," says Dr. Pruitt, "Tell your support team, 'If you notice that I've skipped it, just remind me, or if you see that I've taken my medicine every day for a week, congratulate me.'"

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Monitor Your Healthy Progress

If you try and track your progress in your head, it won't work. You need to write it down. "If you've set a goal to walk 30 minutes, 3 days a week, keep a calendar and mark down every time you go for a walk. It's a simple way to hold yourself accountable," says Dr. Pruitt. "What's measured is improved, so if your goal is to lose weight, keep a food diary as a way of self-monitoring," adds Dr. Norcross.

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Give Yourself Healthy Rewards

"Remember grandma's law: First you work, then you play," says Dr. Norcross. Rewarding yourself for a job well done can be something immediate, a free-pass on a future chore or time with friends, adds Dr. Norcross. You can also treat yourself by choosing healthy lifestyle habits that you enjoy. "If you find something punishing, it's not likely you'll do it," says Dr. Pruitt. "So there's something to be said for choosing an exercise that you somewhat enjoy. And at the end of the exercise, treat yourself. The treat can be in your head—just silently award yourself for a job well done."

someone tying their shoe and getting ready to exercise
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Focus on Why You Want to Change

Dr. Segar, Associate Director of the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls, says to focus on the Why, the How and the Do when trying to make sustainable behavioral changes. The "Why" is incredibly important, as Dr. Segar says, "It determines our quality and level of motivation for persisting in the behavior." So, if you've been recently diagnosed with diabetes, your "Why" could be to simply live healthier with diabetes. But if you focus on something more specific, such as the energy you'll feel if you exercise more and eat healthily, you will receive far more motivation to succeed.

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Make Change Your Top Priority

Once you find the reason to change your behavior, the "How" comes next. "Imagine a 50 year old woman who is trying to lose weight, but is on a plateau [hasn't lost weight] after two months. How important is exercise really in her daily life if the purpose is to lose weight, but she's not seeing results and is juggling work and kids?" says Dr. Segar. "If the purpose for exercising is actually more energy, which makes you happy and helps you focus, it's more compelling. The 'how' phase of the behavior change is making that behavior purpose (in this example, having more energy) a priority within all of your other priorities on a daily basis."

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Be Ready for a Change of Plans

The last phase of your behavior change, according to Dr. Segar, is "Do." Stay flexible if you plan on making these lifestyle changes stick. "Life happens. For example, it's noon and I had an appointment at 3 p.m., so I thought I would fit a walk in over lunch. Making these lifestyle changes is all about being creative and understanding that what you'd planned to do may not happen, so learning how to improvise is really helpful." Missed your 20 minute walk? Settle for two 10 minute walks, instead.

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Remember, Nobody's Perfect

Setbacks and mistakes are bound to happen whenever you start a new habit. "This isn't about being perfect," says Dr. Pruitt. "It's okay to miss an exercise day every once in a while. Just don't let yourself go more than three days without exercising. When you drift back to your old ways, you need to catch yourself and get back on track to your SMART skills." Remember, every day is a new day to make a change.

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