How to make healthy habits stick

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How to make healthy habits stick

Setting a resolution at the start of a new year is one thing, achieving it is another. Health reporter Karen Fittall tells us how to be goal getters this year.

Around half of us make New Year’s resolutions each year. The trouble is, they often don’t last long, sometimes just a few days or weeks. And, by three months in, more than half of those who made resolutions have given up on them.

With statistics like that, it makes you wonder why we keep bothering, right? Well, it’s also true that even though the act of setting a goal or resolution doesn’t guarantee you’ll achieve it, having one to work towards can be genuinely motivating. Research shows people who openly set resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve their goals than people who don’t.

To increase your odds of success even further, we’ve put together a few food-for-thought facts and tips, and pitfalls to avoid, about a handful of common health resolutions.

Habit forming steps

No matter which area of your health and well-being you’ve got your eye on improving this year, the following three-step plan can help.

Step one

Work towards one or two goals at a time. Research shows the brain can’t handle working on too many resolutions or changes at once so, rather than trying to go for all your health goals together, pick the one or two most important to you right now.

Step two

Be SMART about it. Take your ‘bigger goal’ – say, ‘do more exercise’ – and crunch it down into a routine that’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-related. For example: “My goal is to do more exercise so, in February, I’ll go for a walk every week day, before work.” It’s specific; you can measure whether you achieve it; it’s attainable and realistic and, by including ‘in February’, it’s time-related.

Step three

Turn the routines involved in achieving your goal into a habit. That way, you’ll keep doing them and move closer to your goal, even if life gets busy or your motivation wobbles. To do it, employ the ‘three Rs’: reminder, routine and repeat. If you want your routine to be going for a walk every day before work in February, choose a reminder that’ll trigger you to do it.

This might be your morning alarm or finishing your coffee. Then, whenever you encounter that reminder, repeat the routine. It’s a research-based behavioural tactic that experts say helps habits form in, roughly, two months.

You’ve resolved to

Lose some weight

Trouble is

You think a ‘diet’ is the answer. While diets might work for weight loss in the short term, research shows most people gain back any weight they’ve lost and, often, a fair bit more. The reason? If the food and behaviour changes a diet dictates aren’t sustainable for you in the long term, there’s no way it can deliver long-term results. Simple.

To make it work

Adopt the ‘small changes’ approach instead. In other words, identify a few dietary ‘stops or swaps’ you’re willing to make, while leaving alone the food-related behaviours you’re not willing to change just yet. And, at the same time, make one change to your daily routine that’ll increase how many steps you take. Once you make those ‘steps, stops and swaps’ part of your routine, add a few more small changes.

Do more exercise

Trouble is

When you’ve tried to commit to this resolution in the past, you start off well but tend to lose motivation after a couple of weeks

To make it work

Find an activity that makes you feel happy while you’re doing it, rather than persisting with a type of exercise you think you ‘should’ be doing in order to lose weight or change something about how your body looks.

According to a US study published in 2017, not only does the latter promote a false belief that exercise has to be ‘hard’ to be valid, but also,when we don’t get the results we’re after, we give up.

On the other hand, if you get genuine enjoyment out of an exercise, you’re much more likely to keep doing it, regardless of whether or not you experience short-term results.

Eat healthier

Trouble is

You’re time poor, a recognised barrier to cooking healthy meals from scratch. Plus, healthy food is more expensive, right?

To make it work

Make and take some short cuts. While a US study did find people who spend a larger amount of time prepping and cooking food at home have healthier diets,
healthy recipes don’t have to be time consuming. Check out Healthy Food Guide’s ‘5pm panic!’ and ‘Ready in 20 minutes’ recipe collections.

You don’t always need a recipe to eat healthier, either. A quick, effective way to bump up your intake of vegetables, is simply to cover half your plate with veges at each meal.

As for the cost factor, a 2017 Australian study found that, for a family of four, a healthy diet was actually between 12 per cent and 15 per cent cheaper than eating an unhealthy diet.

Drink less alcohol

Trouble is

If you rely purely on willpower to achieve this one, you’re setting yourself up to fail. In fact, a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association revealed not having
enough willpower was the top reason people gave when asked why they’d been unable to make healthy lifestyle changes. So it’s best to use a different strategy.

To make it work

Make a conscious effort to count your drinks. An Australian study published in 2018 found, from 16 different strategies, counting was the only one that helped people significantly lower their alcohol consumption over time. Other techniques found to be effective to cut back on alcohol intake include alternating between alcoholic and ‘soft’ drinks and not being afraid to turn a drink down if you don’t want one, instead of being polite or bowing to pressure.

Stress less

Trouble is

Life’s stressful. Many of us say stress is having at least some impact on our physical health and well-being, with key stressors being money worries, family issues and trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

To make it work

Bear in mind, research has shown it’s not how often stressful events occur in your life that affects your health. What matters is how you and your body react to those events. One of the best ways to help your body cope better? Exercise. Numerous studies have confirmed its protective effect, showing not only how regular physical activity helps keep stress levels in check long term but, also, that a single workout can help reduce stress immediately afterwards.

Digital detox

Trouble is

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is a very strong force against putting your smartphone aside. Couple that with the fact that receiving a text message or a ‘like’ on social media stimulates our brain’s reward centre by releasing a ‘pleasure-seeking’ chemical called dopamine, and you have a tricky habit to break.

To make it work

If going ‘cold turkey’ is too anxiety provoking, try writing down all the reasons you want to spend less time on your devices. Maybe it’s so you can have more meaningful face-to-face relationships. Maybe you want to find more satisfying ways to relax or perhaps you want to free up your time to pursue something creative or play a sport. Once you have your motivations in place, make a start by turning off all your notifications and setting yourself a screen time limit. Maybe allow yourself 10 minutes every two hours to clear your messages or check emails, then put the device face down and walk away. You can even switch it off if you’re feeling up for it.

19% the number of US ‘New Year resolvers’ who were successful at achieving and maintaining their resolution after two years.

First published: Feb 2019

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