Wish healthy eating and exercise happened effortlessly for you? Try these habit-forming tips.
Habits are the unconscious decisions you make on a daily basis, like putting on the seat-belt every time you get in the car, or tying your shoelace in the same way every time.
Habit-formation advice is simple: repeat an action consistently in the same context – and, over time, the action becomes habitual.
Some actions are easier than others, but there’s no reason why healthy eating and exercise can’t become habitual with the right approach.
In fact, researchers writing for the British Journal of General Practice argued that habit-formation advice is an innovative technique for promoting long-term behaviour change – that is, changing unhealthy behaviours to healthy ones.
Here’s how you can use this advice to form healthy habits of your own.
Establish a routine
Making healthy eating a habit could be as simple as incorporating it into a daily cue.
For example, in one study, people repeated a health-promoting behaviour (for example, eat fruit, go for a walk) with a daily cue or time, such as after breakfast.
The study results suggested the strength of this habit increased over time – and, missing the occasional opportunity to perform the behaviour didn’t seem to have a serious effect on the overall habit formation process.
Choose simple habits
The British researchers suggested simple actions demonstrate better results for habit formation than elaborate routines.
Examples of simple actions are drinking water, or eating an apple. A complicated routine would be doing 50 sit-ups, or running 5km 5 times per week.
The researchers pointed out that simply repeating an action in a ‘consistent context’ leads to the action being activated habitually.
They also argued that, once you start doing an action as a result of an external ‘cue’, you depend less on conscious attention or motivation to achieve it.
Pair habit-formation advice with a ‘small changes’ approach, and you have a helpful strategy for instigating behaviour change.
In another study, researchers interviewed people who had lost weight following habit-based interventions.
The interview results suggested that, during the study period, the healthy interventions had become ‘second nature’, had ‘wormed their way into the brain’ and that participants ‘felt quite strange’ if they did not do them.
To make a healthy habit, the researchers recommend following these 6 simple steps:
- Work out your health goal or the habit you want to establish
- Name a simple action you can do every day which will help you achieve your goal
- Work out where and when you’ll do the action – will it be after breakfast? Before dinner? As soon as you wake up? You need to be consistent
- Do the action every single time you encounter your ‘cue’
- It can take as long as 10 weeks before you do your action automatically – that is, without even thinking about it
- Congratulate yourself – you’ve made a healthy habit!