Habits make up 40% of our daily life, so if you want to feel and look better, incorporating more healthy habits into your life is key. How can we get rid of our unhealthy behaviors and replace them with routines that improve our life?
Let me be clear: Habits are not set in stone, and they are very much in our control if we understand how they work. So let’s begin with some background on why we even have habits, then I will discuss strategies on how to change the ones holding you back and how to instill new, healthy ones.
A habit is a behavior we repeat regularly and unconsciously. We have both good habits and bad habits in our life- what we hope is that the good habits very much outweigh the self destructive ones! Good habit: brushing our teeth. Bad habit: eating the donuts at work when you want to lose a few pounds.
The body loves habits because being on automatic pilot saves mental and physical energy – this is a strong biological truism. Imagine if you had to think about each movement necessary to parallel park your car – it would be exhausting and very inefficient! Instead, you hardly think how to turn the wheel, which way to look and when to apply the brake because you have done it so often it has become routine.
So when the body finds something you do from which it benefits, like clean teeth or getting into a parking space, it will lay down a neural pathway in the brain that will remind you to replicate that behavior. This neural pathway will strengthen every time you repeat the action, until it becomes a default mode – you begin to do the behavior without much thought, and a new habit has been created. Unfortunately, this applies to eating 500 calorie donuts too, since the body has not changed much from the Stone Age when any kind of food was considered worth starting a habit over.
It goes both ways: just as a neural pathway for a certain behavior gets more entrenched the more that behavior is repeated, if you stop the behavior the neural pathway weakens and so does it hold over you. This is why it is often hard at first to get back into your workout routine after being on a long, lazy vacation – those neural pathways for your exercise routine weakened from desuetude.
Those people who seem to find it so easy to exercise or only have one serving? They don’t necessarily have more willpower than you – what they have are stronger neural pathways for the behaviors of working out or eating moderately.
The reason why I get to the gym at 5am is that the automaticity of my habit means there is little thinking and little emotion – “Gosh I am tired, I really don’t want to exercise” might run through my head as the alarm goes off, but the neural pathway I have developed for exercise over the years is more persistently reminding me, “You always feel great after you work out”.