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A 21-Day Challenge Can Lead to Better Health

Three apples sit lined up on a calendar.
(Image: © Apple photo via Shutterstock)

I spent last Sunday afternoon the same way I spend most Sundays: Thumbing through the latest nutrition journals. (Try not to be too jealous.) I actually enjoy the process because I usually find a study or two that surprises me. This past Sunday, I didn't encounter any surprises, but I did find one study that inspired me.

The 2012 Northwestern University study found that people were able to make lasting changes to their diet and lifestyle after a 21-day commitment to follow a few rules. Participants were given specific instructions on how to eat, and how much exercise to get for each day of the three-week period. They were tasked with changing just two bad habits: lounging on the couch and eating junk food.

They were paid for their participation, but only if they followed the rules. After the three-week period ended, participants continued to report on their diet and exercise regimen, but they had no rules to follow.

Guess what happened? Well, their choices weren't quite as healthy as they were during the rule-following period, but they were much healthier than before the program started.

 This got me to thinking: If they can do it, why can't the rest of us?

Here are some tips for creating a 21-day challenge of your own:

  • Set rules – and stick to them. Cut your lounging time to no more than three hours each week. Commit to eating a certain amount of fruits and vegetables each day. It's only three weeks. You can do this.
  • If you mess up, start over. If you don't follow the rules for one day, the next day becomes day one again. How's that for incentive?
  • Tell someone about your challenge. You're more likely to stick to your guns if someone else is holding you accountable. Better yet, invite them to join you.
  • Keep a daily log and mark each successful day on the calendar as it passes. You'll feel a sense of accomplishment that will keep you motivated to continue.

Healthy Bites appears on MyHealthNewsDaily on Wednesdays. Deborah Herlax Enos is a certified nutritionist and a health coach and weight loss expert in the Seattle area with more than 20 years of experience. Read more tips on her blog, Health in a Hurry!