Lending a Helping Hand

Two views of local Extension leaders drilling ...

Image by Cornell University Library via Flickr

For a long time (years, in fact), my father was in bad shape.  I don’t just mean aerobically although that was part of it; his body was just in bad shape.  His knees were bad, he couldn’t walk very far, he had a frightening cough, and it seemed like he was depressed a fair amount of the time.  It was really, really hard to see my dad this way.  As someone who has always been health-conscious (at times to an unhealthy degree, I admit), a lot of my dad’s behavior just didn’t make sense to me because I felt like I wouldn’t treat my body the way he treated his, which to me seemed abusive.  It upset me: it made me sad, but it also made me angry because I just didn’t understand why he couldn’t just ditch his unhealthy habits and replace them with new ones.  We’d get into long discussions about better ways to eat, exercise, how to take care of your body, but nothing would change and it made me feel like I had wasted my time.  A lot of my anger stemmed from the fact that I felt like in neglecting his health, he was telling the people around him that he didn’t really care enough about them to be a part of their lives.

Luckily, I’ve reached a point where I can understand that things are more complicated than that.  It still really upsets me to think of how my dad was acting, but it also makes me really happy and proud to think of how significantly he has turned his life around.  He is in much better shape now than he was just a few years ago.  He exercises regularly, and although he may not be perfect, who is, really?  What’s important is that he makes an effort now, and that effort seems to matter to him.  He credits his transformation to me, but I credit it to him.  He’s the one who has made the commitment and stuck with it.  If I helped in some way and if he feels that I was a source of support, that’s great.  But I think that when it comes to getting someone else to adopt a healthy lifestyle, help and support are really the only things you can provide.  It’s taken me a while to realize this, and I still have a hard time with it every now and then.  I love exercise, and there’s a big part of me that feels like everyone else should love it too.  But when you’re trying to get a loved one to make healthier decisions, forcing your beliefs on them is the wrong way to go.

You may be in a relationship with someone (it could be a family member, a significant other, or a friend) whose health is not a big priority for them, and you may want to get them to change that by starting an exercise routine, or changing their diet, or making time in their day to engage in some care-taking activities.  Here are some tips that I try to keep in mind in situations like this.  They should help you to be a source of help and support so that you can help that person succeed and not put them off healthy habits for the rest of their life!

  • Explore different activities: I’ve always thought that a key component to maintaining a fitness routine is finding something that you truly enjoy doing.  There are people who just don’t enjoy exercise.  My dad, for instance, doesn’t like it, but does it because of its benefits.  But in a lot of cases, it’s possible to find an activity that is fun and engaging.  If you can help someone find a form of exercise they like, there’s greater likelihood that they’ll stick with it.
  • Be a training partner: If you and your family member/SO/friend end up exercising together, be sure to develop a partnership rather than a competitive vibe.  If the two of you can be sources of motivation to each other, then you both benefit.
  • Let the person work on their own timetable: Patience.  This is probably the hardest thing for me to accept when I am trying to encourage someone to get healthy.  But if you push someone too far too fast, a number of things can result, and none of them are positive.  The person might get annoyed with the activity, or with you; she or he might feel pressured to do it; etc.  You have to let someone choose to be healthy because if their heart’s not in it, no amount of work on your part is going to change that.
  • Lead by example: This can be helpful whether someone has just started an exercise routine or changed their eating habits, or if they’re just thinking about making some changes.  You don’t have to bounce around constantly proclaiming how great you feel, but you can be an example of all the benefits that someone can reap by replacing some unhealthy behaviors with healthier ones.
  • Be a source of support, and also a source of love: in many cases, unhealthy habits are signs that someone may not be very happy with themselves.  It can be hard to adopt healthier habits or treat yourself better when you don’t feel you’re deserving of that kind of treatment.  So help your family member/SO/friend to remember (or just believe) what a great person she or he is.  If they can cultivate more of a feeling of self-acceptance, a desire to treat themselves better will follow.

Have you helped someone you care about develop a healthier lifestyle?  If so, how did you do it?

Embrace:Me 30-day challenge day 7: Today’s act of kindness may sound a bit weird, but here it is–I threw away a pair of underwear.  They were fairly old, but beyond that, I just didn’t feel that good in them.  They were uncomfortable, and made me feel bulgy in the wrong places.  I was thinking about it this evening after running and before getting in to the shower, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I bothered keeping a pair of underwear that I clearly didn’t like.  I realized I do this with a lot of my clothes.  They don’t fit right, or I just don’t like them all that much when I wear them, but I hold onto them anyway.  Throwing away those underwear was a rejection of this tendency.  From here on out, if I have a clothing item I don’t like, I’m going to get rid of it.  If it’s in good shape, it will go to charity.  Otherwise, it will end up somewhere else.

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  1. This post really struck a chord with me. I agree that the best you can do is serve as a positive example, be supportive, and be patient. I try to think about what tactics would work on me, if the situation were reversed. Nobody likes hearing that there’s something wrong with them, or that they need to change. But I think being supportive, and letting the other person talk about what’s motivating unhealthy habits, or keeping them from healthy habits can be an act of true care and love. Nagging and nitpicking just make things worse.

    1. I think putting yourself in the position of the person you’re trying to help is such a great idea. That hadn’t occurred to me at all, but it is definitely something to consider! When I was trying to get my dad to be healthier, there was always a part of me that just wanted to say, “Why can’t you just do this? Just choose to do it!” because I would get so frustrated. I still feel that way with my fiancé sometimes. Every time I find myself thinking that way, though, I remember that it’s not a question of just making a choice, there are a lot of other factors involved, and I have to be aware of that if I do want to be helpful instead of hurtful.

  2. I’ve been throwing away (or donating) a lot of clothes lately. I did reach the point where it was not good to hang onto them. The bad thing is that as my wardrobe dwindles, I still have a hard time convincing myself to replace items. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter if I wear crappy clothes with holes in them since I telecommute and nobody has to see me. But I see me! And I feel crappy! The underwear is kind of the same thing… even if there aren’t many people that see them, it’s still about how they make you feel. Now I just need to feel good enough about myself to pick up some clothes and enter a dressing room!

    Alright, so that big ol’ comment isn’t about the crux of your post.

    I’m glad your dad is getting healthier and that you’ve inspired him. You’ve included great tips, because we can’t force others to choose healthier ways, but by being supportive and a good example it will have a positive effect. And like you said, when it is the right time for them to embrace these behaviors, hopefully it will stick better than if it was done begrudgingly.

    1. I don’t work from home, but I can totally relate to your mentality about replacing the worn-out clothes with new ones. I definitely spend the weekends in pretty ratty clothes most of the time, and it can often contribute to a bad mood. I once read somewhere that you should always dress like you’re going to leave the house, even if you’re not, because it just makes you feel better about yourself. If anything, you should dress your best when you’re going to be alone, because making yourself feel good should be your greatest priority! Easier said than done, though, right?

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