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3 ways to resist temptation and stick to your health goals

Alice Gomstyn By Alice Gomstyn

friends at dinner

When it came to sweet treats, Sarah Smiley, 41, had no willpower. The author of the 2013 memoir Dinner With the Smileys loved to indulge in pie, cake, candy – you name it. But after one particularly gluttonous Thanksgiving in 2015, Sarah decided she’d had enough. She was going to improve her diet and, what’s more, give up desserts for an entire year.

While taming a sweet tooth can be difficult, Sarah found that her biggest challenge during that year was dealing with offers from family and friends. "You don’t realize how much people push desserts on you until you’re abstaining," she remembers. "I got the most pressure at social gatherings like birthdays, and usually the hostess seemed disappointed if I rejected the dessert."

It can be tough to muster the motivation needed to break an unhealthy habit if friends and family aren’t on the same page. Oftentimes, establishing good health habits means resisting subtle (and not-so-subtle) pressure from the ones you love. Here are three tips to help you stay focused on your health goals even when those around you aren’t.

Plan your response to temptation.

An offer for a cigarette, beer or unhealthy snack can act as trigger that leads you back into a bad habit, so it helps if you prepare your response ahead of time, advises Peggy Wagner, head of clinical operations for Aetna’s Resources for Living, an employee assistance program. Keep the focus on yourself to ensure you don’t accidentally offend the other person. Explain that you’re making a decision about what's right for your health, such as, "I want to lose weight so I can keep up with my kids," or "I want to cut back on smoking so I can take a run without losing my breath."

You may also consider telling loved ones about your health goal to manage their expectations. Sarah, for example, found it effective to let people know in advance that she'd be avoiding sweets at the table. “I’d tell them, 'Sure I’ll come to dinner, but just so you know, I’m not eating desserts right now,'" she says. "That way they wouldn’t go out of their way for me."

To avoid...or not? Do what's right for you.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with pressure and temptation, so do what works for you, Wagner says. Some people find it helpful to temporarily remove themselves from certain situations, like happy hour, while others think of creative workarounds.

For example, when John Agin of Columbus, Ohio, decided to quit a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, he knew he still wanted to go out with friends. At the suggestion of Martha Buko, his wellness coach at Aetna, John refused to allow himself to bum a cigarette while he was out. If he wanted to smoke, he’d have to go to the store and buy his own pack. That extra step gave John a chance to reconsider whether he actually wanted the cigarette – and ultimately stopped him from picking up the habit again. (Read more about John’s quest to quit smoking.)

Find a goal buddy for accountability.

Just as bad habits tend to spread among friends and family, studies show good habits can be contagious, too. Surrounding yourself with people who have the same healthy behaviors can help make your own health goals easier to reach. John’s wife, Brittany, decided to quit smoking with him, and the two leaned heavily on each other, especially in the early days. "When one of us was having a strong craving, we could go to the other one for support," he says. "There were several times that we would be each other's rock to lean on when we were trying to quit."

Don't have a built-in support network at home? Look for groups in your area, such as a walking club, or find a friend who shares a similar goal. "It's important for people to put themselves around others who have a positive mindset," Wagner says. "It's like having a group of cheerleaders behind you." (Find out how workout buddies can help keep your fitness goals on track.)

Apps can be useful, too. Two to consider: “Map My Run,” by Under Armour®, which tracks over 600 activities and allows you to share your workouts on social media and connect with other athletes, and “My Diet Coach,” which helps you stick to your weight loss goals and make healthy lifestyle changes. They’re among the curated selection of health and fitness apps found within the Aetna App Room.

When you do successfully avoid temptation, be sure to pat yourself on the back. Recognizing small victories can help keep you motivated, Wagner says. "It's really about acknowledging to yourself that you've achieved something." The positive self-talk can also help keep your spirits up if you hit a rough patch in your journey, as can online tools like Assess Well-Being, which provides Aetna members with mood-boosting tips and depression and anxiety assessments. Positive affirmations can also help you stay motivated – find out how.

Above all, Wagner says, remember that no matter where you are or who you're around, you're in charge of your own health. Sarah says she proved that to herself when she did, in fact, abstain from desserts for a year. Today, she allows herself to indulge in sweets, but she's much more discerning. "Now I know I can control myself," she says. Though the pressure to eat sugary treats was strong at times, "I set a goal and I did it."

About the author

Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!