First you form habits, then they form you. This adage is true for both negative behaviors like cigarette smoking and positive behaviors such as daily workouts.
Maintaining your personal health is important now more than ever. But you won’t get far unless you turn your exercises and workouts into routines and habits. Here, we’ll discuss how to develop new healthy habits (or how to re-work old ones) and make those habits stick long term.
Components of a Healthy Lifestyle
There are several key components to personal health:
- Diet. Healthy eating is a crucial part of maintaining your overall health. Diet plays a central role regardless of whether you’re trying to lose weight or put on extra muscle. And a proper diet is the product of good dietary habits that form over time.
- Exercise. Regular physical activity is essential to any health routine. Regardless of the type (cardio, strength, or stretching), intensity, or skill level of your exercise routine, cultivating an exercise habit will help you meet your fitness goals and ultimately lead to a healthier lifestyle.
- Mental Health and Sleep. Mental health is as fundamental to your personal health as physical health. Practices such as mindfulness and quality sleep help you cultivate mental health. But as with diet and exercise, mental health routines only take hold through force of habit.
What is a Habit?
A habit is any behavior or action that you perform routinely without consciously thinking about it. For most people, old habits are hard to break, and new ones take concentrated effort to form. That's because habits are etched onto our neural pathways.
The Science of Habit Formation
Difficult as it may be to make or break habits, the rules for forming habits are pretty simple. Researchers have identified three components that make up the psychological pattern of what they call the "habit loop":
- The cue—the trigger that puts the brain into automatic mode
- The routine—the behavior or activity itself
- The reward—the signal or positive feeling that reinforces the habit-pattern in the brain
How to Make a Habit Stick
To make a habit stick, you must leverage the three components of the habit loop.
The cue is the routine aspect of the activity. It could be the time of day you go to exercise or the environment you exercise in. Maybe you go for a run every morning when you wake up. After a period of time training your habit, your brain and body expect you to go for a run when you wake up in the morning.
The routine is the activity itself, performed regularly. It could be as simple as a two-mile run or as complicated as a series of yoga poses. It’s crucial for habit formation to repeatedly perform the activity at the same time or in the same place. This way, the brain learns to recognize the cue for the habit loop.
The reward is what reinforces the activity or routine. With some activities, the reward may be built-in, such as the “runner’s high”—the release of endorphins after vigorous exercise. Other rewards involve less direct associations, like the hot cup of coffee you make for yourself after every morning workout.
With diet, rewards are a bit trickier. Eating certain foods—fats and sugars especially—sends strong signals to the brain. To adjust dietary habits, you have to learn the cues bound up with a food craving and consciously work through them to change or undo the associations between the cues, routines, and rewards.
Set SMART Goals
Goals play a central role in establishing new health habits. The goals you set are what motivate you day after day, but they should be realistic. Remember the SMART mnemonic; your goals should be:
- Time Bound
Timeline for Forming a Habit
It’s a common myth that it takes 21 days of practice to make a habit stick. In fact, the timeline varies among people and habits. Some research suggests that sixty-six days is a more reasonable average timeline for firmly establishing a new habit—this number comes from a study group that worked specifically to adopt healthy eating and exercise habits.
Tips for Successful Habit Formation
There’s no better time than now to start forming the habits that will change your life for the better:
- Stay motivated!
- Keep a journal to track progress towards goals.
- Be consistent, but don’t give up if you miss a workout or blow off a meal.
- Be flexible. If weather conditions don’t cooperate, for example, have a backup plan in mind like running on a treadmill.
- Be conscious of your environment and how it affects your motivation.