How to Successfully Adopt a New Healthy Habit
Experts offer tips to increase your chances of sticking to it
Tell my massage therapist you’re struggling to stick with a healthy habit of any kind and her reply sounds like something your dental hygienist would say: “Only floss the teeth you want to keep.”
That’s a spin, of course, on “use it or lose it.” If you want a strong body, a calm mind and an elastic brain — not to mention clean teeth — you’ll want to tend to them all in turn. Plus, remember to eat your vegetables, work on your balance and go to bed at the same time every night, too.
Bernice Brandmeyer, 86, of Creve Coeur, Mo., admits that sticking with healthy habits isn’t easy. “Right now I’m out of the habit of going to my water exercise class,” she says. “I’m gradually forcing myself back into it by having my pool bag ready at the door. When it’s time to leave for class, I don’t think about it, or I’ll stay home. I just go.”
Deciding to Change and Following Through
Forming new habits or reinstating ones we’ve let slide is tricky, according to Wendy Wood, a social psychologist and provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. “We underestimate how complicated the change process is,” she says. “We’re impressed when we just make an initial decision to establish a new habit, but then we have to follow through — and that’s hard.”
"Once you make a decision to form a new habit, figure out a way to make it fun, because the initial motivation is hard to maintain."
Wood has a few tips for establishing healthy habits that stick:
Assess your environment. "Our actions are closely tied to our environment, so explore opportunities to make desired changes easier,” Wood says. “Having a TV or laptop in the bedroom makes it harder to turn off the screen and stick to your plan of going to bed earlier." If your goal is to incorporate more exercise into your day, place some of the equipment in plain sight, such as dumbbells or a yoga mat, so they become part of your environment and remind you to do it.
Some years ago, a Weight Watchers leader told me that you don’t need will power to establish healthy eating habits — you need a strategy. My friend, Susan French, 69, of San Francisco, applied that wisdom to her exercise routine.
“I decided I was done going to the gym,” she says. “I’ve been going a long time, and I’m tired of putting on my sports bra and my yoga pants and going out the door. It’s a long walk there and back.”
Now she exercises at home, working out for an hour six days a week with an aerobics class on the computer. “I really, really like this,” French says, “and I’ve been doing it for over two months.” How confident is she that she will keep it up? She laughs and replies, “Yesterday, I canceled my gym membership.”
Make change fun. “People are likely to repeat behaviors they find rewarding, so once you make a decision to form a new habit, figure out a way to make it fun, because the initial motivation is hard to maintain,” Wood says.
Gail Pennington, 70, of University City, Mo., finds learning new languages fun. “I’m on my two hundred and ninety-ninth day of learning Italian,” she says. “I have no plans to go to Italy, but this entertains me, and it’s good exercise for my brain.”
Pennington is going to Quebec later this year, so she’s also refreshing her French. “A shopkeeper in Paris once complimented my French, and speaking to a native speaker and being understood makes me happy,” she says.
That good feeling comes from a release of dopamine in the brain, Wood says. “If the brain responds to an activity with dopamine, that makes a stable memory trace and cements what you did to get that reward. That’s your brain enabling you to repeat what was rewarded in the past and makes it easier next time.”
Be patient. Experts say it takes two to nine months to establish a new behavior as a habit. “Many behaviors we try to make habitual have multiple steps to them — complicated steps that involve decision-making and some habitual response,” Wood says. “If you make a new behavior easy and fun, then it will be something you keep doing. As that practice accumulates, it becomes a habit.”
One mind trick that works for me is to put my qigong (a mind-body-spirit practice) sessions and aqua yoga classes on my calendar; I schedule them just as I would for lunch with a friend or an appointment. I consider these classes commitments, and when my phone “dings” to remind me it’s time to get ready, I do.
‘Prove to Your Brain That You’ve Got This’
Marcia Reynolds, a behavioral scientist based in Phoenix, recommends talking about changes you want to make. “Say it aloud, ask for help from
family and friends; that makes you more accountable,” she says.
A leadership coach and author of the book Outsmart Your Brain, Reynolds also believes in posting quotes or pictures in places where you will regularly see them to remind you of your goal as you work to establish a new habit. She also cautions against beating yourself up when you don’t always live up to your new expectations.
“We often focus on where we lapsed, what we didn’t do,” she says. “As we move toward change, the brain needs evidence that we will be successful, so, remember to look at what you did well, even when it’s just one thing. Prove to your brain that you’ve got this.”
Whether you want to start meditating, stop smoking or practice random acts of kindness, Reynolds recommends making these or other changes for personal reasons. “If you’re doing it for a family member or for your doctor, that’s not good enough,” she says. “For the best end result, a strong emotional launch requires a deep personal desire.”