Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Design thinking: A new twist on forming healthy habits

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I often encounter people who say, “I’m so stuck! I can’t seem to make a consistent habit of exercise or weight loss.” A new way of setting goals and problem solving, called “design thinking,” may be of some assistance.

This method was developed by Dr. Bernard Roth, a founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford and author of the book, “The Achievement Habit.” A contingent of Stanford students used this strategy to help farmers in Myanmar deal with productivity problems related to irrigation. When students went there to try to solve the problem, they realized that lack of light, rather than irrigation, the originally stated obstacle, was the real problem. They then went through these 5 steps to find a solution. One essential step is to identify the true problem (step 2).

  1. Empathize — learn what the real issues are that need to be solved.
  2. Define the problem — this may be not what you initially think it is.  This is one of the most important steps, because it ultimately leads to the best solutions.
  3. Ideate — brainstorm, make lists, write down ideas and generate possible ways to fix the problem.
  4. Build a prototype or create a plan.
  5. Test the idea and seek feedback from others.

Although this process was developed with scientific issues and external projects in mind, the same can be done with ourselves to try to solve our own problems and move forward.

More details can be found at

Let’s take the example of starting and maintaining a regular exercise plan. Like anything else, it’s important to dig deep and try to understand what the real issue is.

  1. Why do I want to make exercise a habit? What will I get out of it?  Some common answers are: or play with my children or grandchildren, or age gracefully, or be in less pain, or feel fit enough to travel wherever I want without wondering if I can manage the physicality of a foreign destination.
  2. What is the real problem? What would it do for me if I made exercise a habit? If the answer is that you’d do it to look better, then maybe a wardrobe overhaul or a new haircut would do the same, in which case your action plan would be quite different. If you want to do it for overall better health, to prevent some of the same limitations that your parents had, to have more energy, or to prolong life, then exercise is your best bet.
  3. What are some ways I can do this? Good options are to walk with an exercise buddy, get a cardio machine at home while watching TV or listening to podcasts, go to classes, consult a professional, join a gym or take up a new active hobby like hiking or biking.
  4. What’s my plan? Maybe you’ll start by calling my friend who loves to walk, and you’ll work up to walking with faster intervals, then gradually add weight training to your plan by working with a professional. Try to make a goal of walking 3 times per week for the next month.
  5. Then reassess in one month if the plan is working, and if you’re ready to add the next step of weight training to get in overall better shape. Then talk to my walking friend or trainer and see if I’m meeting my goals or what steps you could take next.

Let’s say that one of your main issues is that you want to feel better and healthier. There are many ways to do this in addition to exercise. You may want to begin by eating more healthily, meditating, getting more sleep, socializing more with friends and family, taking more time to pursue hobbies, or engaging more in spiritual life. If this is the case, your action plan will be much different than if the main goal is to prevent illness (although all of the above pursuits may also keep you healthier and end up helping to prevent illnesses).

So, if you’ve tried something for a long time and it hasn’t worked, you may want to re-examine what the true issue is. If your weight loss or exercise plan isn’t working, how will you redefine the problem, and do it with some empathy towards your real needs? A lifestyle modification based on design thinking may be just what the doctor ordered!

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