By Lisa Hampton
Making Healthy Your Habit
In the last article I talked about some of the common things that keep people from achieving their health and fitness goals and how hiring a personal trainer can help. However, even if you hire a trainer, you are the only one who can do the hard work it takes to live a healthy lifestyle. It’s common for people to set unrealistic goals, dive in too fast and expect results right away. We tend to focus on the reward of being in-shape instead of the process of regularly exercising, eating nutritious food, and getting adequate sleep. So, what if these things don’t come naturally to you? How can we overcome the obstacles that ultimately keep us from our goals? The answer is in our habits.
The Psychology of Habit
It’s simple but true, what we do consistently every day is mostly determined by our habits. Habits are your brains’ way of saving mental energy and are therefore done with little to no thought. A habit is so ingrained it feels uncomfortable not to do it. For instance, brushing your teeth at night. If that’s a habit for you (and I hope it is) it will feel bad if you don’t do it. A habit is neurologically wired in your brain by a process called a “habit loop” which consists of three phases: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
A cue is a trigger in your environment that pushes your brain into autopilot and decides which habit should be used under the circumstances. For instance, you planned to go to the gym, but something during your day stressed you out, so you decide to go home and solve the problem quickly through an existing habit, for example, eating cookies, smoking a cigarette, or having a cocktail.
Routine is the key phase to forming a long-lasting habit. Routines are a series of behaviors that are frequently and intentionally repeated. The brain uses these behaviors to gather information about what is or is not bringing us a good feeling. Initially, routines can be uncomfortable and require a deliberate effort. For instance, waking up early to run every morning or choosing healthy food over junk food are challenging and may not feel pleasant in the beginning. The problem is that many of us try to skip this essential “routine” phase because our established habits are cued to handle tedious or unenjoyable tasks. Your workout would be so much easier if it just did itself, right?
Reward is the last phase of the habit loop, it determines whether the behaviors done during the routine are worthwhile. If the behaviors during the routine feel pleasant, the brain creates a “neurological craving” to repeat those behaviors with more efficiency, which is the creation of a habit. So, all you really need to do to make healthy habits is link more pleasure to the routine, not the result. Researchers at New Mexico State University conducted a study to find out why people keep exercising regularly when it isn’t easy. Their findings showed 92% of the participants reported that they carried on exercising as a habit because of how it made them feel, which is the reward that the brain craves.
How To Make Habits Work for You
Now that we’ve discussed some of the psychology of how your mind forms habit, let’s talk about some tools you can use to make habits work for you instead of against you. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already reached the first step where you’re ready and willing to make a change. The next few steps can help reinforce that willingness.
Find Your Why
To find out how willing you are, you need to find your why. Reflect on what you’re trying to achieve and why. Understanding “your why” will help you stay motivated when inevitable roadblocks to building new routines surface. For instance, if your goal is weight loss is it because you’re interested in being healthier? Do you want to fit into a certain clothing size? Are you trying to impress someone? Are you wanting to get off a medication? Maybe it’s a combination of all a lot of whys. Get specific about your why’s and write them down.
Prepare for Roadblocks
Reflect on why, to date, you haven’t regularly practiced this behavior. What has stopped you in the past? Is fear or shame getting in the way? Or a lack of time? When you know what has stopped you in the past, you can quickly identify and manage them as they arise. Maybe a busy schedule has kept you from hitting the gym regularly. To avoid this occurrence from happening in the future, put 30 to 60 uninterrupted minutes on your calendar for exercise. Maybe you’re just not feeling motivated enough lately. To keep yourself accountable, you might hire a trainer, find a fit workout buddy or a mentor to help keep you on track. Research shows that your odds of success increase dramatically when making your intentions known to someone whose opinion you value or perceive as having a higher status than yourself.
Teach an Old Habit New Tricks
Did you know it’s easier to change an old habit than to form an entirely new one? The reason is because your brain already has the information it needs from the cue, routine, and reward of the habit loop. All you need to do is change your routine. For instance, if you feel stressed and your old habit reaches for the potato chips, try going for a walk, run, or jumping rope. The feel-good endorphin release from getting your heart rate up will feel good, and feeling good is the reward your brain needs to solidify the habit. The healthy habit will be further reinforced when you and others see the good results in your improved physique.
Build on Micro-Habits
Make incremental adjustments that (over time) move you closer to achieving your goals. Think of them like stepping-stones that lead to your destination. For example, if you want to get into the habit of going to the gym after work, do the simple routine of going to the gym just to hang out, drink some water, get familiar with the equipment and people. Over time, you’ll feel more comfortable and get inspired to stay longer and workout more. I often tell my clients if you can get to the gym for 10 minutes, chances are you’ll stay for another 30 minutes to an hour.
Taking an activity you don’t like to do and pairing it with something you do enjoy is called temptation bundling. Package a behavior that gives you instant gratification (checking social media, listening to music, or bingeing your favorite TV series) with a beneficial, but less fun, activity (doing cardio, prep cooking). Only allow yourself to do the “fun” thing in tandem with the “not-so-fun” thing.
Show Yourself Compassion
Go easy on yourself when you’re trying to form healthy habits. Any long-term change is going to take time, that’s just the reality. There will be ups and downs. But you are capable, and if you’ve made it this far, you are also prepared.
I’m Lisa Hampton, a certified nutritionist and personal trainer at Life Adapted Fitness in Kansas City. Thank you for reading my article, I hope it helps you on your fitness journey and please stay tuned for more articles on nutrition and fitness. If you are looking for personalized help with forming healthy habits, please reach out to me here or you can find me in the gym, I’m always happy to help.