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5 ways to create healthy habits

Dr Heather McKee
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How do you create a routine that will last all year, here are 5 evidence based insights from behaviour change specialist Dr Heather McKee to support you:

Do it for you!

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, we often start by forcing a goal on ourselves (I HAVE to lose X lbs, I SHOULD do X, X person wants me to do Y). If you want to create changes that you will stick to all year, you have to dig for the motives behind why making lifestyle changes is important for YOU and you alone.

Ask yourself; “Why is it important to me to create this change in my life?”

Think about how you want to feel. For example: “Eating 5 a day, allows me to set a positive example for my children, walking for 20 minutes at lunch gives me the energy to focus on work, a 5-minute meditation helps me feel calm with my family.

When you create healthy habits based on why they matter to you, what they give you back in your life, those are the changes that stick.

Choose joy

Why do we pound the pavement or treadmill when we don’t really enjoy it most of the time? Because we think it’s good for us – but it’s not good for us if we can’t stick with it. Research has shown that the healthy habits that we enjoy are the ones that last. Maybe its salsa dancing in your kitchen, taking the dog or the kids to the park, or how you love the taste of fresh fruit. Or maybe it’s that you love listening to heavy metal music whilst doing a workout, watching your favourite TV show or listening to that podcast you love whilst you chop vegetables for the week’s dinners.

Whatever it is the key is that if you’re enjoying your healthy habits, it makes the rest feel easy.

Ask yourself “What healthy habits do I like?” In order to stick to our healthy habits, we have to enjoy them.

Small changes are powerful changes

A commonly held habit myth is that big goals lead to big changes. We have all heard the story of someone who woke up one day and decided that they were going to change - 10 stone or 1 million pounds in the bank later, they have transformed. Whilst this might be true for a small few, the majority will crash and burn when trying to transform ourselves overnight. We have, after all, a life to live: A demanding job, children to pick up from school, a parent that needs help...the list goes on. A big goal requires an enormous amount of energy, willpower and focus.

What’s the alternative?

Instead of trying to do everything at once, why not focus on making one small change and doing that consistently? I always recommend that people set themselves one bite sized change each week; planning a healthy snack at 4pm to avoid the biscuit slump or aiming to walk 100 more steps on their fitness tracker on each day. Each time you achieve it you get a sense of satisfaction and this spurs you on to stick with it. You can then step it up gradually over time.

The research shows smaller, simpler actions become habits more easily.

Small is powerful, that's why small changes culminate in big results.

Ask yourself: “What one small change can I commit to for the next week?”

Put your habit in the real world, your world

If you do something at the same time in the same place each day, it makes it more likely it will become a habit. You can do this by asking yourself when and where you are going to perform your small change this week. Research shows it makes it up to 90% more likely that you will carry it out! Here is how it works:

  • Instead of wanting to “exercise more”, change it to “If it's Monday or Wednesday I’ll do an online weights/dance/Pilates class at 7am.”

  • Instead of “eat healthier this week” change it to, “After lunch on Sunday at 3pm I take 60 minutes to plan my meals/do my shopping/prepare healthy snacks for the coming week”

The key with this is to be specific to your life. You may need to experiment a bit to find the when and where that works best for you but after a couple of weeks you will find your groove and creating that habit will become easier.

Celebrate your success

Trying to create healthy habits that last can be hard. Research has found that celebrating them not only speeds up our ability to form healthy habits but also makes the process more fun. When you celebrate your changes be it drinking that extra glass of water or taking a 10-minute walk, you tap into the reward circuits of your brain. You essentially train your brain to learn that the activity you performed feels good and makes it much more likely you’ll want to repeat that habit more often and repetition is what leads to long term success.

How do you celebrate? In whatever way helps you feel good about the small change you’ve just made. It could be to sing your favourite song, visualise yourself scoring a goal, do a drum roll on your desk or say in your head or aloud “I am creating healthy habits that make me feel good”. The key is that you experiment to find the celebration that works for you and then do it immediately after your new healthy habit.

Ask yourself: “How can I celebrate my new habit immediately after I’ve done it?”

Feeling good about the changes you make will fast track your healthy habits, make you feel good and make it much more likely that those changes will last all year (and beyond).