Brushing our teeth twice a day. Getting coffee at the nearby 7-11 on the way to work. Grabbing a sandwich at the corner deli for lunch three times a week. Going to sleep on the left side of the bed. These are all habits. Habits are any behavior that is done in a repeated and repetitive way.
Most of us know that drinking too many beers, eating too many French fries, smoking cigarettes and not exercising can all be detrimental to our health. So why don’t we eat and drink in moderation, quit smoking and start exercising? Because it’s hard. It takes a conscious effort and that isn’t always the easiest thing to pull off in the middle of long days filled with work and personal obligations.
Here are a few suggestions that will help you break those unhealthy habits. The key is making the healthier habits seem more doable and less overwhelming.
- Prepare mentally. If you can’t avoid a tempting situation, prepare yourself in advance. Think about how you want to handle it and mentally practice what you plan to do. Preparation will make it easier to stick to your goals once you’re faced with something that entices you.
- Get rid of temptations. If you always stop for a donut on your way to work, try a different route. Replace fatty foods, cigarettes, alcohol and similar items in the home with fruits, vegetables and comfortable exercise shoes. If it’s not close at hand, you’re less likely to give in to temptation.
- Seek out social support. Support networks can be positive or negative. Ask friends, family members and coworkers who already practice the behavior you’re working on to help you stay accountable, or find someone who has a similar goal so you can motivate one another.
- Replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. Try exercise, a favorite hobby or spending time with family when you would normally choose a negative habit. Instead of happy hour, invite your friends to a shared activity like a game of pick-up basketball, going fishing or an art class.
- Celebrate successes, big and small. Give yourself a healthy treat when you’ve achieved a small goal or big milestone. Keep in mind, the treat shouldn’t be the unhealthy habit you’re trying to break. So if you’re trying to lose weight by eating healthier and exercising, reward yourself with a new workout shirt or socks instead of supersizing your next meal.
Whether you’re looking to form healthy habits, break unhealthy habits or a combination of the two, it’s important to be patient and give yourself some leeway to make mistakes. Habits – both positive and negative – do not develop overnight, but rather come about over time with deliberate choices that move the needle in the right direction.
[Emily Smith is the Fund’s Health Promotion Manager.]