Motivation is the best medicine in diabetes management

Running on a treadmill
Feb 6,2013

by Timothy Hindmarsh, MD

When it comes to diabetes management, there’s no substitute for diet and exercise. Both of these require motivation for success.

I believe that motivation can be gained and sustained, giving very powerful results, but not from trying harder. Motivation, diet and exercise are about training — not trying.

Think about any activity you do regularly: tasks at work or playing an instrument, for example. None of these tasks were learned by trying hard. They all come from practice and training, until they became automatic.

It’s the same with exercise and diet. Think about your diet and exercise plan as training. You are training yourself to eat and not eat certain foods. At first this is very painful, but it soon becomes a habit that comes automatically. Exercise is the same. Train, don’t try, and soon you will not be able to go without it.

I believe there are three steps to training: awareness, goals and excuses. Awareness is the most important step.

To make a change in anything, we first have to know what to change. There is an old business adage that states “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The simplest way to gain awareness is to maintain a diet and activity diary. Write down three things every day: The exercise you do, everything you eat, and the amount of time you spend on the computer or watching TV. Simply writing these down for two weeks can cause profound changes in behavior.

I had one patient do this, and he recognized that he was eating 4,000 calories a day. It blew his mind; he had no idea he was consuming so much. He backed that down to 1,800 and has since lost 100 pounds, all simply through the power of awareness.

Goals need to be real and measurable. Shoot to run a 5K or to get rid of some medications. I had another patient who lost 100 pounds by setting goals around hunting. He loved hunting, but his health was getting in the way of his life. He changed his diet, increased his activity and is now able to hunt with his sons.

I think the most powerful tool in maintaining motivation is excuses. When we make excuses, we rationalize why we should not do something we know we need to do. The real power is in getting excuses: Get a workout partner or a fitness coach, or sign up for a gym class. My biggest excuses are my two Labradors — they demand a tremendous amount of exercise. They have been worth hundreds of miles of running to me on days when I would not normally run.

Diabetes is a difficult disease to live with. It requires relentless commitment to the daily details of life. I have seen far more success with patients when they get and stay motivated than when they get over-medicated.

A healthier and fitter body allows us to get the most out of life. Isn’t that what health care is all about? Stop trying and start training.

Tim Hindmarsh, MD, is an urgent care doctor with Samaritan Health Services. In his free time, he enjoys blogging about motivating people to take control of their health.