Every 37 seconds, one American dies from cardiovascular disease. This eye-popping statistic comes from a new study published in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association (AHA). But the goal of the study isn’t to point out how unhealthy Americans are nowadays: instead, the study looks at a gathering of earlier studies that assess the best ways to help people get motivated to be healthy.

Setting realistic behavioral rather than physiological goals is an important part of getting healthy.

Everyone knows diet and exercise are the keys to losing weight, staying in shape, and living a healthy life. But this is often easier said than done. The methods reviewed in the current study fall into the category of cognitive-behavior strategies, and they are some of the more successful ones in helping people become more active – and proactive – in their exercise and weight loss goals.

According to the study, cognitive-behavioral strategies “focus on changing how an individual thinks about themselves, their behaviors, and surrounding circumstances and how to modify their lifestyle.” For instance, setting realistic goals for oneself is a good way to get started. More specifically, setting realistic behavioral rather than physiological goals is an important part of getting healthy. The researchers say, for example, that a creating a goal like upping whole grain intake (a behavior) is more valuable – and doable – than setting a purely physiological goal, like reducing LDL (i.e., “bad”) cholesterol.

Another helpful method is self-monitoring, which can be as simple as writing down (honestly!) one’s food or calorie intake or logging how far or how many steps one walked in a day. This helps people size up the progress they’re making “on his/her terms,” rather than having to make room in one’s schedule to meet with a counselor outside the home.

On the other hand, meeting with a health care provider or nutritionist over the long term also seems to help people stay on track, and is more effective than one-time meetings. The authors say that this is probably because multiple follow-up sessions, along with group meetings, “provide several advantages, including social support from the peer group, an increased desire to succeed due to a sense of commitment to the group, and an opportunity to modify the program based on feedback from group members or the program leaders.”

These are just a few of the strategies that have been shown to be effective in helping people get healthy and stay on track, but there are many, many others. The Internet-based therapies is another method that more people are turning to these days. Social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and text messaging may also help, according to the paper, but the jury is still out on how effective they may be.

The researchers point out that if cardiovascular disease were eliminated completely, it would add seven years to the average the life span of the American. There are many ways to get in shape and stay heart-healthy, and it’s up to each of us to find the method that works best and keeps us going strong.

The study was published in the July 12, 2010 issue of Circulation.