If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit, health-related or otherwise, you know how difficult it can be. Every morning, you awake to a daunting, gut-wrenching choice: to commit to change or to fall short of your goals. Those of you who have taken on the challenge of becoming your healthiest self can attest that this choice especially applies to creating changes in your diet and exercise routines. We all realize that the trick to lasting good health lies in mastering positive fitness and nutrition habits. But how can you put bad habits behind you and make wellness your main priority… every single day?
When attempting to dial back unhealthy behaviors, you’re up against several obstacles:
- It is likely that you’ve been practicing your unhealthy behavior over and over again for decades. Since your first childhood experience with brussel sprouts, you’ve become a master at avoiding vegetables. Since middle-school gym class, you’ve become adept at excusing yourself from exercise. Because you’ve been forming those unhealthy habits for so long, it isn’t easy to leave them behind.
- Efficiency and convenience are another knock against your good-health goals: unhealthy habits are often much easier than the alternative. Should I drive to work or ride my bike? Play football with the kids or rent a movie? Chop and prep fresh veggies or hit the drive-thru? Usually, unhealthy alternatives save us lots of time and require less physical and mental effort than their healthy counterparts. We’ve created such an efficient society that making good choices is almost impossible next to the not-so-healthy, yet quick and easy options.
- Finally, bad behaviors also come with sneaky, seductive pay-offs. It is understandable that most of us enjoy chocolate more than apples–it’s sweeter! And why wouldn’t we avoid morning exercise when we could stay cozy and warm just by hitting snooze one more time? Of course, there are pay-offs for healthy habits as well: lower cholesterol, lower BMI, increased energy, longevity… But they’re usually not immediate or powerful enough to control our choices in the moment.
With the odds stacked against us, it’s easy to understand why conquering unhealthy habits with willpower alone can be rough. Luckily, the science of habit change gives us more effective ways to go about banishing unhealthy routines for good. Let’s take a closer look at some common unhealthy habits to see how we can put behavioral science to work for us.
Bad Habit: Eating on the Run
We’ve all fallen into the trap: You’re late for work, so you stop for a latte/muffin combo. The kids have soccer practice after school, so you settle for take-out tacos. And if you’ve ever taken a road trip, you’ll agree that convenience stores definitely live up to their name: there’s a one-stop-shop for all kinds of unhealthy eats within every 5-mile stretch!
Eating out while you’re in a rush is a habit that can definitely wreak havoc on your health and fitness goals. But there are ways that you can combat the convenience of fat-laden fast foods. Get savvy about stowing snacks in your vehicle. If you’ve got apples, carrots, granola bars and water on hand, you’ll be less likely to make unplanned pit-stops. Additionally, if you know you’re in for a busy week, prep quick and easy meals at home ahead of time. This way, you can grab a healthy bite to eat and avoid the all-too-familiar fast-food run in between evening activities. When you’re preparing to leave the house, give yourself more time than you’ll actually need to get ready so you can make healthy decisions with a level head instead of instinctively reaching for the easiest option.
Bad Habit: Skipping Workouts
As important as nutrition is in your health-focused efforts, exercise ranks right up there with it as a tool to achieve lasting wellness and weight loss. There’s lots of work that goes into planning meals and pumping weights, but only one will get you sweaty and crank up your cardiovascular health. If you find yourself missing workouts, you’ve probably fallen victim to one of two bad habit culprits: lack of practice or more powerful pay-offs.
There are two types of people who are most likely to fall off the exercise wagon: people who haven’t yet mastered making fitness an everyday priority, and those who have become bored with their age-old routine.
In the first case, when you’re starting a new workout regimen, it is extremely important to set small, measurable goals and to track your progress daily. Keeping a chart on your wall of the days you fit in your workout will help you stay on track toward creating a lasting healthy habit.
If you’ve been rocking it out at the gym for a while and have recently hit a wall, consider changing up your routine and adding in incentives for reaching new heights. Never tried yoga? Complete a month of classes and then treat yourself to a massage. Think you hate cycling? Commit to biking to work for a week and, only then, indulge in that new handbag or pair of jeans. When you’ve lost internal motivation, adding outside incentives can give you the boost you need to get back on track.
Bad Habit: Mindless or Emotional Munching
On the surface, the analysis of unconscious eating behavior seems pretty simple. Food tastes good, especially the sugary or salty snacks we choose when we’re munching away in front of the television. It is obvious that there’s an immediate, powerful pay-off in the taste and texture of whichever treat you choose from the pantry. What you may not realize is that there’s another nasty habit-maker at fault here as well. If you really think about your instances of mindless munching, you’ll realize that they often occur in coordination with some other environmental trigger. Many of us turn to food when things go bad or when we’re bored; maybe you reach for chips when you hear unexpected bad news, or you’ve always had ice cream as a bedtime snack. The practice of situational eating is deeply ingrained and can be tough to correct.
Here again, keeping track of mindless munching and adding in incentives for staying away from unhealthy snacks can help you to reign in your behavior. Notice your food/mood triggers when they happen and make a point to keep your biggest trigger foods out of the house. Be mindful about what you’re eating and set a goal for avoiding senseless snacking. Is there a favorite show you’ve taped or a new album you’ve been eyeing for your iPod? Deny yourself those little luxuries until you’ve met your goal of mindful eating for one full week. Adding a pay-off more powerful than the flavor of food can help you avoid so many extra calories. And, you can start practicing an alternative healthy behavior to get you through stressful times instead of food. Try journaling, meditating, calling a friend, or going for a walk instead of reaching for your usual comforting snacks.
Bad Habit: Skimping on Sleep
Late to bed, early to rise is a poisonous pattern that rings true for most of us. We know that sleep helps us to function well and be productive. But, between career commitments, family time, social activities and personal fitness, who has time to get a good night’s sleep?
Sleeping patterns are typically programmed in when we’re young. If you think back, you may realize that you were a night owl in` high school or an early riser in college. Your body has found a rhythm and is happy sticking with it. Because being awake is so well-ingrained, when you’re trying to change your sleeping habits, you’ve got to start small. Set up a bedtime routine and stick with it; this will help trigger your brain and body to prepare for rest. Brush your teeth, wash your face, read a book, or meditate to calm your body. Avoid looking at a computer or TV screen right before bed, as this can sometimes make it more difficult to fall asleep. It also helps to reserve your bedroom for sleeping only; relegate the television, video games, and home office to the rest of the house.
After you’ve got your bedtime routine down, aim to go to bed 5 minutes earlier or sleep in 5 minutes later than usual. When you achieve this schedule for a few days, add 5 more minutes of shut-eye. Making little changes like this can lead to big results. Keep it up for a month and you’ll have added over one full hour of restful rejuvenation!
How to Establish New, Healthier Habits
When you’re working on wellness, it always seems like someone is asking you to cut something out: sweets and fast food from your diet, time from your day to exercise, and so on. To stay sane while decreasing unhealthy behaviors, you need to fill the gaps! One of the best ways to break a bad habit is to insert an alternative healthy behavior in its place. You can use tips and tricks based on the information above to help you build new, healthier habits and make them stick, in conjunction with the following three tips:
- Set an achievable weekly goal for how many miles you’re going to bike, laps you’re going to swim, fruits you’re going to eat, and healthy meals you’re going to cook–and get cracking! As you reach your goal each week, you’ll find a rhythm and your healthy behaviors will start resembling a well-oiled machine.
- Make healthy choices easier and more convenient. Get environmental obstacles (like lack of jogging gear and a pantry full of junk food) out of your way. Once you’ve set up your environment for success, sticking with healthy habits will become much simpler!
- Plan some powerful pay-offs for reaching your wellness goals. Sure, internal motivation is great and hopefully you’ll have a ton of gumption to get fit. But, no matter how committed you are to your cause, unhealthy habits will always entice you with their quick, underlying pay-offs. If you plan ahead and reward yourself with extra incentives for working out and eating right, you’ll be riding high on healthy habits for a lifetime.