Do you ever wonder how someone you know manages to be so consistent with their healthy habits? You know the type – someone who seems always to eat healthily and exercises consistently. Do they have fantastic willpower and strength? The answer is no. Those folks who are so consistent with diet and activity have just formed little habits that allow them not to have to rely on motivation.
In this post, I want to talk about why establishing small habits is the key to a healthy lifestyle. I also want to debunk the myth that regular exercise, healthy diet, good mental health practices, and so on are only for those people who have incredible willpower. All of us can lead a healthier lifestyle – we need to come at it the right way.
Habits, motivation, and willpower can sometimes seem like the same thing. I like to think of it this way: motivation and willpower get you started, but habits keep you going. Think about your local gym in January.
For the first few weeks, the gym is packed with people excited to make a change for the new year. By the third week, attendance has waned, and by mid-February attendance is the same as it was for any other month of the year. This cycle is so predictable year after year that gym regulars will sometimes make other plans to workout elsewhere for the first two weeks in January. Why does this happen?
Many of the “resolution” gym-goers have a few things in common. Typically, they don’t have specific goals in place, or a way to really measure their progress. Sometimes their expectations are unrealistic, but most often than not, they are fighting an uphill battle to establish a habit.
Going to the gym provides an unfamiliar (and intimidating) setting to make a change. The effort required is a monumental leap for those who don’t do any other regular physical activity. Think about it – you need to make time to workout, get yourself there, understand the equipment, devise a program, do something that is physically hard, and all while feeling like others are noticing that you are out of shape and maybe even out of place.
When you fail at going regularly, you might be tough on yourself because you know all sorts of people who seem to maintain a program effortlessly. The truth is, you didn’t fail because you are weak; your good intentions didn’t pan out because you didn’t have the right tools. And those regular gym-goers? They are consistent because at some point they made incremental changes in their lifestyle that eventually created a successful habit.
Implementing good habits starts with a solid plan of action. At the very least, an action plan needs to have a time (when), a place (where), and an action (how). Think about this example, “Next Thursday morning, I will go for a walk at my favourite park down the street.” This statement is different from, “I really need to get into better shape.” We know from research that people who start with an action plan are more successful at making a change than those who don’t.
Habits develop when you have cues in your environment that lead you to do something consistently. Remember my blog post last week about how to maintain healthy habits while on vacation? Travel is where you can really see the impact of your simple plans and daily habits. Research supports the idea that when we don’t have regular cues (e.g., every Thursday you meet a friend for a walk), we are more likely to have our good intentions go astray. This is especially true when on vacation.
I exercise regularly not because I have a magical super-power or fantastic motivation – I get out in all types of nasty weather (and when I don’t really feel like it) because exercising is as automatic as brushing my teeth. For me, exercise has been a lifelong habit that is cued by many different things in my environment. Trust me when I say that whatever lifestyle change you are trying to make will become so much easier when you repeat it often enough.
When you are first forming good habits, change may be difficult. If you can accept the fact that you may have to rely on motivation to get started, you will likely be more successful. Eventually habits become more natural as they turn into actions that you do automatically.
The next trick in forming good habits is to prepare for success. Let’s say you want to add more fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet. You could start your preparations by re-engineering the set-up in your fridge. Most fruits and vegetables are hidden in low drawers, while we tend to put more “grab and go” items higher up. Imagine a refrigerator that had the top shelves filled with fresh fruit and vegetable options and the less healthy choices were put away in the drawers. This is the type of preparation that can help you be successful in your change. Add in some action planning, and you are so much more likely to be successful.
Finally, if you are planning to make a change, you may want to begin with one that you feel confident about. For example, if you are worried about drinking too much soda pop, start by adding in more water to your diet. Carry a cute water bottle, drink fizzy water, or put a large jug of water with cut-up fruit in your fridge (at eye level). Put the soda pop out of view or make a deal with yourself that you will only drink soda outside of your home. You are more likely to feel positive about adding in water than thinking about eliminating a behaviour that you currently enjoy. And, if you continue to replace the soda with water, eventually, you will form an automatic habit.
So, remember, to make a successful lifestyle change, just keep things simple: think positively, make a plan of action, prep your environment for the change you want to make, and hang in there. Healthy behaviours will become easier the more you do them.
Your sister in health,
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