The secrets to maintaining healthy habits

5 months ago

As we draw towards the end of January, it is a good time to reflect on New Years’ Resolutions. Perhaps you chose not to make any this year as they’ve been difficult to stick to in past years, perhaps you made one or more but are struggling to stick to them, or perhaps you are currently doing well but wondering if you’ll still be able to keep things up in three, six or twelve months? Wherever you are with your “healthy habits” I hope this article will help you to make or maintain changes that lead to 2024 being a great one for your health! I will share with you top tips on how to choose what lifestyle changes will be most impactful for your health and then how to stick to them.

We are all aware that modern life with its stresses, dietary patterns, lack of physical activity and reduced opportunity to sleep all impact on our health. By taking some time to reflect on your health, opportunities, and values you can identify areas where small changes can have a big impact. You could, for example, choose one of the Lifestyle Medicine Pillars below to focus on. In which area do you feel it would be most important and/or most achievable to make a change?

  • Diet and nutrition
  • Physical activity
  • Stress levels
  • Sleep quality and duration
  • Use of, or exposure to, harmful substances (e.g. tobacco, alcohol)
  • Relationships and social connection

Once you have chosen the most important (or easiest) area to make a change it’s time to make that resolution. Here is where we can sometimes set ourselves up to fail – deciding on sweeping changes or multiple areas to focus on. Keep it simple. Make one resolution your priority. Often others will follow, but by getting one change imbedded first it is more likely to stick and provide a firm basis on which you can then build. As well as simple, keep it manageable. Again, you can build on this good start in a month or two when it is a regular habit. You may be able to maintain significant lifestyle change while your motivation is high but, in a few weeks, when motivation begins to fade, you want a simple and easy to keep resolution that you can stick to. For example, you could try just 5-minutes of an activity first and then gradually increase the time spent on it as it becomes a habit.

It is also helpful to make the resolution something positive rather than “I won’t do x” you could try:

I will eat more vegetables (rather than I will stop eating crisps).

I will keep alcohol free during the week.

I will focus on quality time with my family (rather than I will reduce social media).

Once you have decided the “what” you’re going to do, ensure you remember the “why” you’re going to do it. Take just a couple of minutes to think about why this is an important change for you, what benefits will you see and feel once this is a regular habit. What else? What else? And what might this lead to, how might you build on this change? To make this more powerful spend just a few minutes and write down the benefits you will see/feel from the change.

When you have the “what” and the “why” sorted, it’s time to move onto the “how”. Behavioural change science tells us a few things about how to make lifestyle changes stick:

Attach the new habit to an already established habit e.g., 5 minutes of journal writing while the kettle is boiling for your morning cuppa, a walk around the block when you get home from work before you go into the house, a 5-minute workout in the kitchen while cooking dinner.

Ensure you are held accountable e.g., tell your partner/friend/children that you’re planning to make this change and ensure they help motivate you and hold you to account if you don’t do it on a particular day.

Reward yourself by recognising when you do the activity. We are not so different from the young child who is motivated by their star chart on the fridge. Having some sort of way of recording when you do the activity or achieve the goal will reinforce the behaviour. It’s a little hit of dopamine (the neurotransmitter involved in our goal and reward system) that helps to motivate you to keep going. So, a chart on the fridge or ticking it off on a calendar really does help. And if you want to use smiley faces or star stickers then all the better!

Forgive yourself if you miss a day, and learn from it. No one is perfect. There may be days when you don’t engage in the habit, or you fall off the wagon. Research tells us that the most important thing at these times is to speak to ourselves with compassion (and avoid self-judgement). See the “failure” as feedback instead. Take time to understand why it didn’t work on that particular day and plan for how to work around that in the future. And if you’re consistently missing your target then go back to the drawing board, repeat the steps above and see if you can break it down into a smaller habit, make it more automatic or choose something more important or easier instead.

I hope this article will help you to find your most impactful lifestyle changes to make, and help you to stick to them, so that 2024 is a fabulous year for your health and well-being.

Dr Ruth Dyson

If this article has got you thinking and you would like support in this area, please contact reception to book an appointment with Dr Dyson. As part of the appointment, you will be given a personalised health and well-being plan that takes into account your goals and preferences. This plan will help focus your efforts and make the changes achievable and sustainable.