The Science of Creating Healthy Habits & Maintaining Them
The Science of Creating Healthy Habits & Maintaining Them
Wanting to create healthier habits is a critical starting point. But, you need much more to actually create and sustain them.
A road map is needed for moving towards and arriving at your goals. That road map is a collection of goal-supporting habits.
Unfortunately, people start new habits but mostly quit those habits within six months.
How can you start and maintain healthy habits? In this article, we use the science of habit development to discuss how to break bad habits, promote new habits, and know how to tell if you’re making progress or not.
The Value of Healthy Habits
We’re often tempted to reach our goals in the fastest way possible. If you’re like us, you want to drive 90 miles per hour on your road trip to shave off a few minutes and arrive at the destination faster.
When it comes to reaching health and fitness goals, people often use rigorous approaches that require large amounts of time and effort.
Unfortunately, our time and effort towards goals decreases in less than six months (Gibbs et al., 2012). As a result, it’s common for people to lose their progress beyond six months (Wood & Neal, 2016).
Instead of focusing on time- and energy-consuming approaches, you’re more likely to reach and maintain your goals by making sustainable habit changes.
A long-term study from the University of Pittsburgh illustrated this point (Gibbs et al., 2012). In the study, instead of using aggressive calorie tracking for the sake of losing weight, over 400 women focused on simple, healthy diet changes.
The researchers followed up with the participating women at two points in the future: six months and four years later.
Successful long-term weight loss was linked with the following habits: decreasing the consumption of dessert, sugar-sweetened beverages, meats and cheeses, and with an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption.
What’s the takeaway? Use simple, relevant habit changes to create sustainable progress.
Why Maintaining Healthy Habits Is So Hard
Creating and sustaining new habits is difficult for several reasons (Wood & Neal, 2016):
- Habits are driven by cues. When we reach a time of day or see a specific image, we automatically think about specific foods or activities. For example, opening the pantry to see cookies. Eating cookies wasn’t what you set out to do, but after seeing them they are all you want to eat.
- Habits are driven by environment. The presence of support (or lack of it), availability of options, and the ease of taking action all play a big role in what actions we take. Common environmental influences come from the people you live with. Eating healthier and staying consistent with workouts is much harder to do when the people around you don’t value or practice the same lifestyle choices.
- Existing habits can get in the way of new habits. With habit change, we not only make the effort to start new habits but also have to work to break old habits. For example, starting a new habit of exercising after work might also require stopping a post-work glass of wine.
If we want to create sustainable habits, we should take a look at the cues and environments that consciously and subconsciously affect us. Also, we should consider what existing habits are preventing us from creating new habits.
How to Sustain Healthy Habits
Before we dive into starting new habits, let’s discuss how to break interfering existing habits. Breaking a habit involves a few approaches, including the following two (Wood & Neal, 2016).
Stop the habit-causing cues
Examples of this are changing your commute to avoid driving by a fast food restaurant or no longer going to the room at work where the candy jar is located. Replace the candy jar on your desk with fruit, or remove it entirely to avoid the visual cue that stimulates the desire to consume when you’re not hungry.
In general, remove incentives and prompts that make the negative habit easier to sustain.
Change your environment
Add obstacles between you and the habits you want to stop. Throw out the ice cream in your home Most importantly, avoid buying more. Place your TV remote in an inconvenient location. Put your phone on the other side of the room or in a separate room from where you sleep in an effort to get more and better quality sleep.
How to Start New Habits
To develop new habits, the following three techniques support starting and continuing new behaviors.
The cliche recommendation that a habit is formed in 21 days isn’t an exact science, but there’s some accuracy to it.
Performing an action consistently, such as daily, leads to habit formation after a while. How long does a habit take to form?
The research varies. Some experiments showed as little as 18 days of consistency, while over 200 days were necessary in other research (Wood & Neal, 2016).
Pick a time frame to perform the habit daily and stick to that commitment.
Create habit-supporting cues
Cues not only trigger us towards undesirable behaviors but also can be used to drive us towards healthy behaviors.
Example cues that drive us towards healthy habits are leaving a gym bag by the front door, using a phone alarm to alert you when to get ready for bed, or leaving a bowl of fruit on the counter. Another great goal-reinforcing cue from author and investor Nir Eyal is to tape a crisp $100 bill to your calendar, place a lighter nearby, and burn the bill if you don’t complete the habit you set out to do that day.
Monitor your habits and progress
Self-awareness is a very powerful tool. A wealth of research shows that when people monitor their progress and habits, they have better outcomes (Carels et al., 2005; Burke, Wang, & Sevick, 2011).
These self-monitoring approaches promote enhanced awareness of one’s habits and whether or not they are working, which reinforces continued or enhanced effort.
Examples of self-monitoring (to gauge your healthy habits) are exercise journaling, food journaling, daily weighing, taking monthly measurements, tracking calories, and counting steps.
These habits are linked with more success with weight loss, muscle growth, and sticking to exercise and nutrition habits.
It’s important to know which of these tools and exercises are going to be empowering and not demotivating to you. Some of us will thrive with counting calories, while others may find it a bit detrimental to their mental health. If you need help figuring out what works for you, speak with a Nutrition Coach.
Get Support & Accountability
Having someone like an accountability partner or coach to hold you accountable can make building new habits easier. This is also one of the number one reasons why our members continue to choose The Perfect Workout to help them reach and maintain their goals. We offer 1-on-1 dedicated support, instruction, and accountability you won’t find anywhere else.
Nir Eyal says in his article “The Pinky Promise,” “Once we learn to manage our internal triggers, make time for traction, and hack back external triggers, we can prevent distraction and stop ourselves from ditching our goals by making a pact—a pinky promise. In making this pinky pact, we erect a barrier, a consequence to not doing what we say we’re going to.”
This kind of mental promise with ourselves and others provides a big boost to starting and sustaining our healthy habits.
Step-by-Step Process to Creating Healthy Habits and sustaining the change
You’ve read a lot about the value of healthy habits and strategies for breaking and starting new habits.
However, let’s make this process as practical as possible. If you are looking to start new healthy habits that support your goals, we recommend following the following process.
Remember: if you can stick to goal-supporting habits, you’ll likely get to your goal (and stay there!).
- Identify your goals and be specific. Examples: lose 10 lbs., reduce your blood pressure by 10 mmHg, increase your muscle mass by 5%. Here’s a great guide from the University of California for setting specific “SMART” goals.
- Make your goals “heart-tingly.” People most likely to achieve and sustain their surface-level goals generate commitment by understanding the real reason behind them. For example, instead of simply “being able to leg press 300 lbs,” you might want to be able to leg press 300 lbs so that you avoid falling and becoming dependent and fragile like your mom or dad. Now, that’s heart-tingly!
- Determine existing habits that impede progress to your goals. Examples: watching TV for hours after work, eating dessert.
- Break the cues and change the environment that promotes those habits. If late-night snacking is an issue, eliminate snack foods from your home and don’t replace them.
- Identify habits that support your goals. Examples: strength training, eating more protein.
- Create cues and environments to support those habits. Buy protein powder and leave it on your kitchen counter. Leave gym shoes at work or by your front door. Set an alarm earlier to leave time for exercise.
- Choose methods for self-monitoring and a frequency for how often you’ll use those methods. Weigh yourself every Friday. Keep a daily food or exercise log. Track your protein consumption in an app.
- Set specific micro-goals for your habits. Strength train twice a week. Eat at least 100 grams of protein per day. Eat at least four servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
- Share your goals with an accountability partner and get started on your habits and self-monitoring approaches!
When you combine The Perfect Workout’s signature slow-motion strength training with our lifestyle and nutrition coaching, you can expect to be supported 1-on-1 through each of these steps.
If you’re not already a member of The Perfect Workout, we encourage you to Book a FREE introductory session to immediately get support, accountability and a roadmap to reaching your goals.
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Remember, wanting to create healthier habits is not enough to maintain them.
A road map is needed for moving towards and arriving at your goals. Get your roadmap to success below.
If you love to learn by reading, check out some of our staff’s favorite books about sustainable behavior change and healthy habits below. After all, reading books is a healthy habit…
- Burke, L. E., Wang, J., & Sevick, M. A. (2011). Self-monitoring in weight loss: a systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(1), 92-102.
- Carels, R. A., Darby, L. A., Rydin, S., Douglass, O. M., Cacciapaglia, H. M., & O'Brien, W. H. (2005). The relationship between self-monitoring, outcome expectancies, difficulties with eating and exercise, and physical activity and weight loss treatment outcomes. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 30(3), 182-190.
- Gibbs, B.B., Kinzel, L.S., Gabriel, K.P., Chang, Y.F., & Kuller, L.H. (2012). Short- and long-term eating habit modification predict weight change in overweight, post-menopausal women: results from the WOMAN Study. Journal of Academic Nutrition and Dietetics, 112(9), 1347-1355.
- Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2016). Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), 71-83.
Dr. Sean Preuss is a faculty member in the exercise science department at Bryan University. He spent a decade as a personal trainer, instructing over 12,000 personal training sessions. He authored the book/e-book The Heart Healthy Lifestyle, which is a research-based lifestyle guide for preventing type 2 diabetes. Sean earned a Doctorate of Education, focused in kinesiology, from UNC Greensboro and a Master of Science in Exercise and Wellness from Arizona State University. Through his work, Sean aims to help people achieve health and happiness through the adoption of effective lifestyle habits.