How To Create Healthy Habits That Actually Last: Part 1

healthy habit foods

I was chatting with a friend on the telephone the other day and we somehow landed on exercise. Actually, we were discussing the Missing Richard Simmons podcast, which naturally segwayed to exercise (and lycra).

I told her about my half marathon training failure and she mentioned she’s been in a bit of a workout rut.

“I just can’t seem to stick to anything,” she said. “I’ll go to pilates for like a week or two after buying a membership, then just lose motivation and stop going.”

This is a familiar story. We embark on these ambitious quests, from juice cleanses to pilates packages, with an honest intention of making some changes. We stick to it for a few days, maybe even a few weeks or months, but inevitably, we quit. A single Jenga block gives way and the whole tower topples.

This is typically followed by shitty self-talk (I’m a failure, why can’t I just stick to this, etc.) and maybe a few handfuls of shredded monterey jack straight from the bag, before resigning ourselves to the fact that we’re never going to change or get what we want.

But perhaps the trouble with setting out to change our habits, is that we’re looking at them entirely wrong. We’re thinking about them in a way that makes life difficult.

When was the very first time you promised yourself you’d stick to healthier habits? My guess would be a long time ago, at a pretty young age.

For me it was 8th grade. My friend and I swore we would exclusively eat precisely measured Ziplock bags of Special K for breakfast and lunch every single day to lose weight. (Meanwhile, after school snacks were fair game so bring on the salt and vinegar chips amiright.) You can understand why A. This lasted less than a week, and B. Neither of us lost any weight. We’ll table the discussion about how I was already dieting in 8th grade for another time.

We’ve all been trying to change our habits around health for awhile. And yet, here we are, telling our friend on the phone that we can’t seem to stick to pilates. It’s so frustrating!

And yet, I do think habits are essential to living a healthy lifestyle. I don’t mean healthy lifestyle like, washboard abs healthy. I mean like really dig your life and your body and feel good most of the time healthy.

So I’ve been thinking about habits, because I keep hearing about these grand plans for pilates and juice cleanses and Weight Watchers that never seem to get people where they want to be. Is there a connection between these initiatives and habits and lasting health? Because if so we’re totally missing it.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes:

The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right? If only it were that easy. It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.

Thousands? Crap!

Turns out there is no single formula for changing our habits, sorry about that. Our boy Chuck has a great explanation on his site about isolating specific habits. It gets into the nitty gritty of understanding the neurological loop at the core of every habit. There’s even a specific 3 pm chocolate chip cookie example if that’s something you’re battling. Aren’t we all?

But for the sake of brevity (ish) and relevance, let’s focus in on one approach in particular, because I think it’s powerful.

Looking at Habits Through a Positive Lens

Be real with me: when you think about healthy habits you’d like to implement (go to the gym regularly, eat more broccoli, drink fewer margaritas, take the stairs, etc.), are you thinking about these things in a positive or negative light?

Most people I know talk about them with great disdain. Like in order to get healthy, they have to do a juice cleanse but they’re dreading it, or they have to drag their ass to the gym even though they hate treadmills.

But what’s interesting, is the literal definition of habit: “A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”

This is sort of contradictory to most people’s relationships with food, exercise and self care, right? These things we’re forcing ourselves to do are not exactly hard to give up. At all.

How often do you complain about pulling yourself away from a salad? Or how tough it was to leave the gym, because you really wanted to log a few more miles? Okay actually I do know one person who fits this bill; my mother could give Forrest Gump a run for his money. The woman could walk for miles on end, but for the rest of us peasants, the gym kind of sucks.

After defining the term habit, the question becomes: what would make healthy actions and behaviors hard to give up? How do we create healthy habits that we don’t want to give up?

And I don’t think this needs to be a life overhaul, by the way, unless you’re dangerously overweight or you’re in a dark place and need one. These can be small, minor steps in the right direction. In fact, the small steps are probably going to be more effective in the long run. Like if you know you hate spinning classes maybe don’t buy a SoulCycle package. Besides you could probably buy a yacht or something instead.

So what would make healthy habits difficult to give up?

The super cheesy, cringe-worthy answer? Learning how to love yourself.

(I KNOW, warned you).

Developing a functional positive relationship with food, exercise and your own body makes all the difference.

But guess what? Nobody’s talking about the emotional side of eating. Instead we sign up for fitness challenges and juice cleanses and don’t understand why we’re still overweight, beating ourselves up when we fail. Nobody’s addressing the dysfunctional relationship with food that causes us to eat for reasons other than nourishment and simple enjoyment, things like stress, fear or distraction.

But “just create a functional relationship with your body” is not a helpful answer when you’re elbows deep in a bag of Cheetos, you know? The more technical way to phrase this is to develop intrinsic motivation. This is pretty much the only factor I’ve found (through a lot of trial and error) that drives sustainable, long-term healthy habits.

Do you value yourself enough to create some habits that are going to make you feel rad on a daily basis – even if it’s not always easy?

Doozy of a question, but the truth is when you truly want something enough, whether that’s a six pack or a smaller pant size, the internal reward of getting that something is what makes you take the action steps. And as you continue to take the steps, a pattern forms that’s hard to stop, because it feels so good.

Now here’s where it gets a little murky…

Creating a healthy habit is not just a matter of putting certain behaviors on repeat and calling it a day.

Let’s say you were paid $50 every day to eat cauliflower for 60 straight days, but then all of a sudden on day 61 the payment stops. Would you continue to eat cauliflower, even if you weren’t getting paid?

Probably not, if you aren’t obsessed with cauliflower. Because if you need an extrinsic motivator (like $50 a day), or a trainer/nutritionist/Weight Watchers meeting to tell you what to do forever, this is probably not a habit that’s going to sustainably last for life.

These things can work in the short term, and often they can be create a great foundation for a sustainable approach. In fact, it’s exactly why we have our our 21 day cleanse. It introduces new ideas about eating well and eases people into healthy habits (as opposed to suggesting you just drink spinach juice for a few days). Following guidelines for a few weeks can be really helpful (and sometimes necessary) in recalibrating our bodies and removing a psychological dependence on certain foods.

But in order to create lifelong healthy habits, we have to go a little deeper. We have to learn how to authentically love ourselves (eeeyikes, cringing again) and start being nice to ourselves.

Because when we love and value the body we’ve been given, neglecting to eat well and move in ways that feel good actually causes discomfort. These practices become difficult to give up. They become our habits.

The Flat Tire Test

I heard someone speak about a “flat tire test” once regarding exercise and thought it was helpful.

Imagine you’re on your way to workout, whether that’s the gym, running track, pool, wherever. When you go out to your car, you discover you have a flat tire! You can’t make it to your workout as planned. Aside from being annoyed about the flat tire, are you disappointed because you were looking forward to exercising and this disrupts your routine? Or are you relieved because it means you have an excuse to skip the workout?

Your mindset here says a lot: either you feel resistance toward whatever type of exercise you’re choosing to do, or you feel resistance when you don’t get that movement in. Fitness would be a lot more doable if you found a form you’re excited about. So ask yourself: are you choosing your go-to physical activity for punishment or enjoyment?

This is all a lot to think about, and in my next post I’m breaking down exactly how to actually build some bitchin’ healthy habits. For now, start thinking about where you’re feeling resistance in terms of your current habits, and how your emotions might be affecting your relationship to food, exercise and your body.

Habits are so much more complicated than we give them credit for. I mean, it’s why people study them and write whole books about them. But when we start looking at healthy habits through a positive lense, and get curious about what causes our behaviors, and how we can change them, the process becomes a lot more enjoyable, not to mention easier.

When we lighten up a little and start learning how to love ourselves (last time, promise), then we take this huge weight off our shoulders. We can start looking at healthy habits as positive things that are hard to stop doing, not challenges we need to tackle.

Read next: how to create healthy habits that actually last: part two.

Do you have any tips for developing healthy habits? Please share them below!

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Author Bridget

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