Building Healthy Habits

A habit is an automatic response we make to something that happens in our daily lives. We don’t need to particularly think about habits, we just do them as part of our normal routine. For example, when we use the restroom we automatically take the time to wash our hand. Another example is the habit of brushing your teeth before going to bed. It doesn’t take much mental power to remember to complete actions that have become habits, but how are habits formed? Can we use habit building to help us achieve our health and fitness goals?

Of course we can! In a study published by the National Institute of Health, people with basic habit building training were five times more successful at losing weight than non-trained individuals.[1] The training consisted of only a small pamphlet with ten tips for building better habits. A very small time commitment to learn the basics of habit building can be the difference between achieving or failing at your goals.

Habits often take months to establish. When in the early stages of forming a new habit it is important to take small steps toward your goals, and not to change too much at one time. Choose one goal to work on at a time. If your goal is one that comprises of a lot of different steps, such as to lose weight, break it down into easy actions that can be repeated daily. A small change to your diet can be very helpful for your long-term weight management. For example, if your diet lacks fruits and vegetables, set a goal to eat one serving of fruit before you eat your lunch, and one serving of vegetables with your dinner. You can keep everything else about your diet the same, just add these two servings of fruits and vegetables to your diet. After a couple months of doing this, it will become normal for you to eat fruit with lunch and vegetables with dinner. Choose simple actions to add to your daily routine. If you try to change too much at one time you will not have to time to consistently train your new habit on a daily basis.

Notice in the fruits and vegetables example there was a habitual cue that prompted you to complete your daily goal. Eating lunch prompted you to eat a serving of fruit. Eating dinner prompted you to eat a serving of vegetables. Choosing a time and a place to achieve your daily goal programs your brain to prompt that action every time it encountered that same situation. Within a few months of continued practice, meaning completing the goal every day, you will notice you will automatically complete the action without thinking about it, just like washing your hands after using the restroom.

Sometimes finding a time or place to prompt your actions can be difficult. To help find something to cue your actions to achieve your goals, try thinking like a computer scientist. Computer scientists use a concept called ‘if-then’ statements when they are programming computers. These statements are ways of telling the computer if something happens, then in response, do something else. Use if-then statements in your plan, such as “if I want to drink a soda, then grab a can of sparkling flavored water instead.” Or “if I am hungry in between meals, then have fruit cut and ready as a snack so I don’t eat junk food as a snack.” When forming habits, your actions should always have a cue that signals when it is time to complete your action that will ultimately build a habit that helps you achieve your health goals.



Habit Building isn’t Rocket Science, but it may be Computer Science

Building a habit isn’t rocket science, but it can be pretty close to computer science. Computer scientists control computers by telling them what to do in a logical step by step manner.  For example, if you want to teach a computer how to open a jar of peanut butter, telling it to twist off the lid would only confuse it. Instead, you first need to explain what the jar and lid are. You need to teach it how to hold the jar with a certain amount of force so it doesn’t fall to the floor, and that the lid will only come off if it is turned a certain amount of times with a certain amount of force. Your instructions need to be step by step and broken into small segments that the computer can understand.

Your health and fitness goals should be broken down the same way. To reach your goal and build new habits, break your goals into sub-goals. Write an action plan for each sub-goal, and complete one action at a time until you reach your sub-goal. If your goal is to lose weight, you want to create habits that allow you to lose and keep off weight. Start by setting a sub-goal, maybe it might be to stop drinking soda. Your action item for this sub-goal might be to limit your soda intake to only 1 soda per day for the next month and then to completely eliminate it. After not drinking soda for a couple months it will start becoming a habit, and you can then move onto a new sub-goal.

Computer scientists also use a concept called if-then statements in their instructions. These statements are ways of saying, for example, if the peanut butter jar is already open, then close it. Use if-then statements in your plan, such as “if I am thirsty, then I will drink water instead of soda.” You can also use this to reward yourself. For example, you can say “if I go a month without drinking a single soda, then I will reward myself with one day I can drink whatever I want.”

By breaking your goals into sub-goals, setting action items that can be repeated daily for each sub-goal, and using if-then statements to plan for different situations that can prevent you from reaching your goal, you will be on track to set new habits that will allow you to sustain long-term goals.