Making healthy choices on a daily basis will eventually lead to healthy habits.
January typically sees individuals heading for the gym, donning running shoes, purchasing protein shakes and dialling in their nutrition. But what happens when this surge of motivation starts to wane? Typically by the end of February those New Year resolutions have fallen by the wayside and you are back to bad habits. It is now necessary to dig deep and really start to look at your mindset. The way that you think about your health and fitness can be enough to affect your success – even when you aren’t actually exercising as much as others. Now I am not saying this is ideal and that we should all just “think” our way fit, but a study done at Stanford University found that the mortality risk for those who perceived themselves as less active than their peers was a whopping 71% higher!
One explanation for this could simply be the level of stress incurred when perceiving yourself as not being as active or health conscious as those around you. If this is producing stress, and therefore high cortisol levels, this could be enough to actually put you at a higher health risk.
Another explanation is that if you believe yourself to be an active person, but then compare yourself to those around you who are exercising more than you, then you are more likely to lose motivation and actually reduce the amount of exercise that you are doing. Conversely, if you believe you are fitter than your peers, you are 1.10 times more likely to reduce your alcohol intake and 1.18 times more likely to exercise more.
This all comes down to MINDSET. What we believe about ourselves can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we feel our friends are doing more than us it can make us disheartened and affect our motivation. If you have negative expectations then you can experience what is known as nocebo – basically the opposite of placebo – whereupon the physiological effect of a treatment is reduced based on your belief – so you may, in fact, be as active as your friends, but believe that you aren’t and therefore the effects of what you are doing are diminished.
Likewise, if you believe that you are “old” as soon as you hit your 40’s and therefore unable to do the same kind of exercise that you did in your 20s and 30s, even though you do not have any physical impediment to prevent you, then your health will likely start to deteriorate, simply because you BEHAVE as if you are old. Your abilities then become more impaired and it becomes a vicious cycle.
However, if you are of the view that “life begins at 40” and you are excited about the next chapter of your life, you are far more likely to participate in events, be more active and generally look after your health.
The mind is a very powerful thing.
Sometimes it is necessary to completely “re-learn’ how to do something. Even something as basic as our eating habits. Whilst we may believe that we eat “healthily”, once we break it down (using a food log for a week can be extremely eye-opening), we often discover that actually our food intake is not quite what we “think” it is.
There is a lot of ‘conventional wisdom’ that many of us have grown up with that have led to us thinking we are following a healthy guideline, but in reality the evidence for it was either very poor, or never there, leaving us in a poor state of health. We now have an epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as many other chronic diseases that are related to our lifestyle. You may have followed the dietary guidelines religiously – eating a low fat, healthy whole grains, plenty of fruit and veg, minimal red meat diet for many years, only to find yourself overweight, unhealthy and suffering from all sorts of issues; gut health problems, arthritis, lack of adequate muscle tissue, too much body fat, too much visceral fat, osteoporosis. These are not problems that we should accept as a part of ‘the ageing process’ and most are completely avoidable, if only we ate what our bodies were designed for.
Taking charge of our lives, and making the necessary changes to get where we want to be can be daunting. So how do we learn to change our habits? How do we recognise whether they are “bad” or “good” in the first place? Some are obvious – we know we probably shouldn’t be eating junk food – particularly before bed! Whilst others may not be quite so obvious at first.
Habits are the brain’s way of helping us to simultaneously memorise and repeat the things we do on a regular basis – we instinctively reach for the light switch upon entering a darkened room, looking both ways before crossing the road (at least if we were taught the green cross code!!). Habits are learned progressively and usually performed unconsciously. The brain is capable of changing, adapting and reorganizing neural pathways as a response to various changes in the environment or certain situations.
As early as 1890 Psychologist William James suggested that the brain was perhaps not as unchanging as previously believed. In his book The Principles of Psychology, he wrote, “Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity.” However, this idea went largely ignored for many years.
In the 1920s, researcher Karl Lashley provided evidence of changes in the neural pathways of rhesus monkeys. By the 1960s, researchers began to explore cases in which older adults who had suffered massive strokes were able to regain functioning, demonstrating that the brain was much more malleable than previously believed.
Modern researchers have also found evidence that the brain is able to rewire itself following damage. The human brain is composed of approximately 86 billion neurons. Early researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth, however it is now understood that the brain possesses the remarkable capacity to reorganise pathways, create new connections and, in some cases, even create new neurons.
So how do we achieve breaking bad habits and forming new ones?
The first step is to acknowledge that you have a bad habit and admit that it is a problem, or causing issues that you no longer want to experience. Cultivating awareness of the habit can help identify the root of it and encourage active change.
Anticipating the early warning signs or triggers that indicate you are about to act out the old habit is an important part in breaking the cycle – we are very good at self-sabotage when trying to change our behavioural patterns and can always come up with a myriad of excuses:
- “I don’t have time”
- “I’ll start tomorrow”
- “I just can’t get motivated”
- “Now’s just not the right time for this”
It can help to implement some positive changes when trying to break old habits so that they then become the new (and healthier) habit. Specify the new habit you want to cultivate and be honest about why you want to change the habits. Understand the value to you:
- “How” – will it change me for the better?
- “What” – is in it for me?
- “Why” – should I make this change?
Make sure it is attainable and within your means. Make sure that you are doing something that you really want to do – if you don’t love the means, you won’t ever sustain the ends.
Decide to do something towards achieving your new habit whenever you feel the triggers of the old habit returning; for example, if you reach for the biscuits when stressed, decide that you will get up and go for a walk/do some jumping jacks/swing a kettlebell….something that is a healthy option and that will stop you from doing the old habit whilst training your brain to do something healthy as an alternative.
We can look at this in a very practical way. We have a CUE, ROUTINE and REWARD. The CUE is our trigger – it is what makes us do something in the first place, so for example you are feeling stressed after a difficult day and your ROUTINE is the thing you do habitually to relieve this stress. Common unhealthy routines that we turn to are:
- Glass/bottle wine
- Retail therapy
And then we feel better – this is our REWARD – but often this is short lived, particularly if you have a routine in place that is not conducive to your health goals. Often you are left with feelings of guilt. Not so good. So the idea with creating new habits is to REPLACE the ROUTINE with something that will ultimately be of more benefit to you. So we have the same CUE, but now a new healthful ROUTINE such as:
- Go for a walk
- Talk to a friend/partner
And your REWARD remains the same – you feel better. In fact you will likely feel even better than that which the original reward provided, because you have done something to truly benefit yourself and have no regrets in that decision. In order to achieve this you need to make a realistic action plan that you can stick to so that you don’t overwhelm yourself from the start!
- Make your plan colourful, optimistic, fun and REAL!
- Stick photos on the fridge to keep you focused
- Make an accountability sheet
- Tick off each calendar day
This will help you to stay motivated and keep you accountable. There is a saying that “neurons that fire together, wire together but this can also work in reverse: “neurons that fire apart, wire apart”.
Through repeating your actions, and practicing and retraining your brain, you are also re-wiring your neural pathways according to the new habit you are trying to create. In addition, pathways that are not used (your old habits) start to weaken and wear off in time, making room for the new pathways to form. The brain is a very flexible and adaptive machine, but the effort you put in to make changes is the deciding factor in how quickly old habits can be broken and new habits formed.
How Long Does It Take For Habits To Change?
The most common timeframes used today tend to be 21 days or 30 days. You have likely seen many adverts that promise you ‘success is just 21 days’, or ‘30 days to a new you’, but where did these numbers come from, and just how realistic are they?
Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950’s noticed that it took approximately 21 days for patients to get used to their new face, or loss of an amputated limb. He explored this theory further and noted that it took a minimum of 21 days to form a new habit. He published this quote in 1960 in his book “Psycho-Cybernetics”, but as often happens with the media marketing machine, it became shortened from a MINIMUM of 21 days to an ABSOLUTE 21 days!!
Whilst we can very definitely start to see improvements within these short time-frames, changing a habit completely can take a lot longer. A study by Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College in London, suggests it may take 2-3 months before a new behaviour becomes automatic – and depending on the individual it can take anywhere from 2-8 months.
So what other positive steps can you take to help you achieve your goals?
- Change your Environment
- DECREASE the number of steps between you and your new habit
- INCREASE the number of steps between you and your old habit
INCREASING NEW HABITS:
Want to eat more healthily? Prepare meals on a Sunday (or your day off) so that your choices are already made for you during the week, reducing the likelihood of reaching for quick, unhealthy options.
Want to start going to the gym? Pack your gym bag and leave it at the front door the night before so that you take it with you to work. Make sure to have a plan as to WHAT you are going to be doing when you get there.
DECREASING OLD HABITS:
Watching too much TV? Cancel your subscriptions, or even take the plug off the television!
Eating too many processed foods? Stop buying them – they won’t be in the house to tempt you!
Who’s in Your Army?
We have touched on this subject before, but it is so important when you are trying to change your habits. Make sure that the people around you really care about you and your goals. Tell them what you are doing so that you become accountable to them as well as to yourself. Let them help you by encouraging the good habits and not providing temptation for the old ones. If there are people around you who are trying to sabotage your efforts, question why you want them in your life. Build yourself a team of friends who will support each other in their goals. Surround yourself with an army of people who want you to succeed.
- Don’t judge yourself if you can’t master a new behaviour in just 21 days
- You don’t have to be perfect! Making mistakes is part of being human and part of the learning process.
- Embracing a longer time-line allows us to realize that habits are a process, not an instant event.
- You can’t change overnight – but you CAN change!!
- Start with Day 1 – and focus on putting the work in consistently.
- Build your army of supporters – and make sure you are supporting them too!
- Make the journey part of the whole process – you don’t get somewhere by dreaming about the end result. You get there by loving every part of the journey itself.
Love it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Embrace the journey, and through that process alone, you can attain everything you ever wanted.
What habits are YOU trying to change?