By: Dr. Mark Pettus, MD

As concerns swirl around the future of healthcare coverage in this country, there’s a tendency to think that our personal health revolves largely around doctor’s appointments, runs to the pharmacy, and an occasional trip to the hospital.  But the truth is, the single most critical factor in staying healthy is – and always has been – our own self-care.  That’s more important now than ever. We’re doctors of ourselves, and we need to view and plan our lives accordingly.

Some suggestions on how to approach this responsibility:

Envision Your Personal Health Future

Take a few mindful moments to focus on what truly matters to you. Close your eyes and picture yourself three months, a year, five years, or 10 years from now.  Who do you see? What are you doing to stay alive and thrive? Write down the three to five things that are most important to your future health. Your list might include things as basic as “lose weight” or “stop smoking”, or as deep reaching as “stay alive to have fun with my grandchildren.” This type of personal visioning and priority setting makes an enormous difference in the success of a self-care program.

Set Very Specific, yet Achievable Goals

Once you know your priorities, it’s time to set specific goals around achieving them. Be realistic.You want goals ambitious enough to improve your health, but not so far reaching that you set yourself up for failure. If lowering your weight and reaching a healthy body mass index is your priority, a goal of losing 25 pounds over the next three months may be too much of a stretch; maybe five or 10 pounds is more realistic. Rather than promise yourself you’ll work out at the gym three days a week for an hour each time, a better starting point would be a brisk 10-minute walk around the neighborhood four days a week. The key here is gaining traction and setting a foundation on which to build.

Enlist Others to Join You on Your Personal Quest for Better Health

There’s no need to go it alone. All evidence suggests that when you partner with others, your odds of success increase exponentially.  If you’re taking those Saturday morning hikes alone, chances are you’ll come up with many excuses to lounge at home instead. But if you know your best friend will show up at your door at 9 a.m., ready to go, you’re not going to disappoint her.  Other partners on this journey might include your spouse, a bicycling buddy from work, or even the family pet. It doesn’t always have to involve exercise. Maybe you and a friend or family member spend Sunday afternoons making healthy meals for the week ahead. Adding a social dimension to your self-care plan makes it more fun and achievable.

Create or Change Your Environment to Increase Your Likelihood of Success

We all know the power of temptation and how it can devour our best intentions. That ice cream in the freezer or those cookies on the counter are calling us.  Clearly, the foods we buy are part of the environment we create around us. By consciously controlling our purchase impulses and making better food choices, we create a home environment far more conducive to success. In a similar way, if you’re trying to quit smoking, avoiding places (and even people) that trigger that habit becomes an important environmental strategy.

Be Ready to Course-Correct as Time Goes on

As important as it is stay accountable to your goals, the reality is you may not always have flawless success. If you have setbacks, you’ve got two choices: beat yourself up or pick yourself up and start over.  Punishing yourself only weakens your resolve and delays your “recovery.” Here’s where you return to the first step (see above) of this continuous improvement cycle. Revisit your original priorities. Reset the clock on your life-long journey of self-care.


Mark PettusDr. Mark Pettus currently serves as the Director of Medical Education, Wellness and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems in western Massachusetts. In addition, he serves as The Associate Dean of Medical Education at The University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is the author of two books, The Savvy Patient: The Ultimate Advocate for Quality Health Care and It’s All in Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health. He serves on the teaching faculty at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine based in Washington D.C. and The Meditation Institute in Averill Park NY. He’s also a member of NWI’s Board of Directors.