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Creating new habits

Easy tips to help you break bad habits and create new healthy ones.

10,000 Steps founder Dr Louise Schofield shares how to change those bad old habits for new healthy ones.

Today you and I will make up to 200 decisions about food. What will we eat? How will we eat it? Where will we eat it? Who will we eat it with?

It's our habits that guide us in making these decisions. A habit is an automatic response or routine that occurs without effort or even conscious intention. Habits are not instinctive: they are learned behaviours.

An instinctive behaviour is one that we are genetically designed to do. For example, as humans we naturally select foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.

This is thanks to our evolutionary heritage. As hunters and gatherers our ancestors needed to kill and gather foods that were energy-dense and therefore most likely to keep them alive. Today in the 21st century we still have this natural propensity to like food high in fat, sugar and salt. The problem, of course, is that there is no food shortage, quite the opposite in fact.

On the other hand, habitual behaviour is what we have learned to do, often on a daily basis and usually because it is the 'easiest' choice for us to make.

Some of our food habits will depend on our personal food heritage, thanks largely to our parents and the type and amount of food we ate when we were growing up, others are a result of our personal values.

My dad (a typical Kiwi bloke into rugby, racing and beer) had the dubious daily habit of driving his car about 800m to the local café and having a flat white and muffin for morning tea. Dad was in his late '50s, overweight, and doctors had some concerns regarding his heart. He had been given much advice over many years about getting into shape and eating better, most of which had fallen on deaf ears. Nothing seemed to work in changing his behaviour.

Finally, in 2001, Dad's first grandson, Sam, was born. So I sent him an invite to Sam's 21st birthday and a pedometer. Sam had, of course, just been born and his 21st birthday was a long way off, but Dad got the point: he needed to change his behaviour and create some new healthier habits or he would not be around for the 21st.

Suddenly he began walking that 800m for his trim flat white and now the muffin only sneaks in occasionally.

Changing behaviour is hard. Whether it be stopping smoking, eating less fatty food, not watching hours of TV or drinking less alcohol, breaking old long-established habits is never easy. The first step is to get motivated. For most of us this means we need a 'call to action'. Dad's call to action was the birth of his first grandson; Rodney Hyde's call to action (in losing around 35kg) was going on national TV and dancing.  When summer comes many of us are called to action by the thought of having to squeeze our bodies back into togs.

The point is: in order to change behaviour, most of us first need a very good reason to do it.

Find your reason, and go for it!

  1. Understand what your 'call to action' is and don't be afraid to use it.
  2. Build a team around you. Tell your family, friends and/or workmates what your goal is.  Better yet, encourage a family member or friend to try and achieve the goal with you.
  3. Hold yourself accountable – measure and record. Want to get more active – wear a pedometer and record your steps. Want to make some small but sustainable changes to your diet – select three small changes
    per month (eg restrict alcohol intake to 5 glasses per week, don't add butter to bread and only order small size takeout coffees), then draw up a basic monthly chart and stick it on the fridge.  Every evening, check off with a tick the goals you have achieved.
  4. Go easy, positive and slow. The goal is to make positive changes that become mindless.  Limit youself to three small changes per month as a new behaviour needs to be repeated many times before it becomes a
  5. Give yourself a break! Do your best, but expect a few blips in the journey towards change.  At some stage you will muck up, but remember you are making lifestyle changes – changes that you want to last for the rest of your life.  So lower the stakes and don't beat yourself up… just try again tomorrow.
Remember, the only thing that is powerful enough to break the 'tyranny of the moment' is habit!

Date modified: 3 April 2017
First published: Nov 2007


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