Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

The Psychology of Habit: How to Establish and Maintain Healthy Habits

Magazine article Nutrition Health Review

The Psychology of Habit: How to Establish and Maintain Healthy Habits

Article excerpt

Ahealthy diet and regular physical activity can be used to improve one's quality of life and feeling of well-being... but we must take action to incorporate these healthy habits into our daily lives if we want to experience the positive results. Taking action to change unhealthy habits can be challenging, even for the most dedicated health and fitness enthusiasts, and turning a healthy change in behavior into a life-long habit can be even more difficult. Here, we review the concept of motivation and explore the psychology of successfully creating healthy habits.

In an article by psychologists from the Health Behaviour Research Centre at the University College of London, (1) Gardner et al define habit as "actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance." A simple example of this response, the authors say, is handwashing after using the toilet. In this case, handwashing is the habitual action that is triggered automatically by a specific context (going to the bathroom). This context-action formula for basic habit provides us with a productive way of framing our goals. Some examples of framing our goals with this formula include the following:

* Instead of saying, "I am going to start running every day", try, "After I wake up in the morning, I will run for 30 minutes."

* Instead of saying, "I will eat more fruits and vegetables every day", try, "I will eat one banana when I eat breakfast and a bag of carrots when I eat lunch."

* Instead of saying, "I will meditate every day", try, "I will meditate for 10 minutes as soon as I get home from work."

Gardner et al explain that a habit is formed once this context-action system is repeated enough to transfer the action from "conscious attention" and motivation to external context cues. This transfer is the key to creating any habit because the action will remain after motivation and interest have waned.

Gardner and his colleagues discuss a few outside studies to support their concept for forming healthy habits. One study they discuss reported a steady increase in self-reported habit strength for an average of 66 days after participants chose a healthy habit in response to a once-daily time cue. Examples of some of these actions were eating fruit at breakfast and going for a walk after dinner. In addition, the researchers in charge of this study noted simpler habits (e.g., drinking water) became automatic more quickly than more complicated endeavors (e.g., doing 50 sit-ups).

With this in mind, setting simple goals when making healthy lifestyle changes might help these changes become more doable and less formidable. For example, say you'd like to start waking up at 5:00am every morning and hitting the gym before work. You currently get up at 7:00am and get ready for work without exercising at all. Immediately attempting to wake up two hours earlier AND exercise every day are big changes to your routine. So, you might FIRST try modifying your sleep schedule. For example, for the first habit modification in this process, tell yourself, "After putting on my pajamas, I am going to get in bed at 8:45pm." And then, "After waking up at 5am, I will stretch for 20 minutes." This will probably be more realistically achievable than broadly telling yourself that you will go to bed early, wake up early, and go to the gym every morning. After waking up early and stretching becomes automatic, try incorporating some bodyweight exercises or a short walk into your routine. When early morning activity becomes a well-established habit, adding a trip to the gym will probably come a lot more easily.

This system is specifically intended for the creation of new habits, not the breaking of old habits. Gardner and his colleagues note that habit breaking (e.g., "I will stop eating fried foods.") is a whole separate system of interrupting the automaticity that comes with a habit. …

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