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Forming Healthy Habits

Whether it’s due to last year’s failed attempts or a feeling of guilt from the festivities, every year a huge chunk of the population set themselves a new resolution. Despite their best intentions, many people’s goals have fallen by the way side by early February. In fact Strava, the social networking site for athletes, has pinpointed the 2nd Friday in January as the day when motivation starts to dwindle.

Are people becoming bored too easily or do they simply lack the required motivation to sustain their good start?

We are creatures of habit

As humans we are hard-wired to find the easiest way of completing a task whilst exerting the least amount of effort possible. It is therefore hardly surprising that most of us would prefer not to endure the pain that comes with a new training programme or the dread of overhauling our eating habits. It would be great if we could quickly get to the stage where we find our healthy eating and exercise so simple it becomes as automatic as putting your seatbelt on when you get in the car.

So, is there a magical length of time that we must stick to our new plan for before it becomes a habit? If you believe a popular notion that has been circulating since the 50’s, you may be under the impression that this length of time is precisely 21 days. Unfortunately, this time frame seems unrealistic and comes with no real scientific backing. In fact according to a 2009 study, it’s likely to take roughly 3 times longer. The study in question involved 96 individuals carrying out either an eating, drinking or activity based task every day for 84 days. After self-reporting on a daily basis, the study concluded that participants took on average 66 days to carry out a new behaviour automatically. On the basis of these findings, you will need to persevere with your New Year resolution until March 7th before you can call it a habit! However, we are only talking averages and we should consider the nature of the goal. The diagram below illustrates a timeline of some of the findings within the study. Unsurprisingly, some habits were harder to stick than others.

Keeping you on the wagon

  • Start small:

The chances are you’re trying to change too much, too soon. Going from a couch potato to intensive training 6 days per week is unrealistic to say the least. We should think smaller to start with, much smaller. So small that it would be embarrassing if you were unable to complete it. For example, aim to perform 1 push-up a day instead of 100, or 1 bite of an apple instead of an entire fruit salad. Setting such small objectives may seem like a waste of time. However, you will stand a much higher chance of being consistent when the task is so easy. Furthermore, this consistency is crucial in creating your new healthy habit and it will help lay the foundations for long-term behaviour change. As long as you complete your initial mini goal, you’ve filled your quota. Should you find yourself performing a few more reps or having a couple of extra bites of the apple then great, a welcome bonus!

  • Stack the habits:

As if the idea of accomplishing tiny goals wasn’t easy enough, we can go a step further to make them almost inevitable. Introducing ‘habit stacking’. This simple technique involves carrying out our new habit just before or just after our existing behaviour within the same setting. In doing so, you’ll not need as much motivation and you’ll be far less likely to forget.

From a scientific standpoint this makes sense. Our current habits are etched in our brain because we have formed really strong neurological pathways. Some of our neural pathways have been strengthened over years if not decades. Therefore, it's a clever idea to use an existing habit as a trigger for the new one we want to introduce into our routine. 

  • Understanding consistency:

So you’ve slept in. You need to get ready and out the door as quickly as possible. The chances are, you’re going to take shortcuts in your morning routine to save time. There are no prizes for guessing that the new habit you’ve been sticking to is the first to in line to get the axe. However, this should not discourage you from recalibrating and continuing on with your new routine the next day. Whilst the occasional bad day is inevitable, two or more days missed in a row could question your desire to continue. The key is to accept a bad day but have a plan to get back on track as quickly as possible. Besides, if you follow the rules of starting small and linking your habit to something pre-existing, you’re unlikely to encounter too many blips in a month, providing you remember to set your alarm clock of course!

Healthy habits take far longer to stick than most people realise, so don’t worry if you’re not finding it simple by the end of January, as research tells us you’re only approaching halfway! If you’re finding everything too demanding, it probably is. Slow and steady wins the race with habit formation so strip it back and make small, achievable adjustments to your lifestyle that you can attach to an existing behaviour. This will stand you in far better stead than demanding olympic-standard discipline from yourself from square one.

Finally, remember you can introduce a realistic healthy habit at any stage of the year, it doesn’t have to be New Year to become a new you.


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