We all know that healthy habits can make us feel better and live longer, yet they can be hard to practice long term. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Read on for simple ways to build healthy habits, reduce disease risk, and live a long and happy life.
What Are Habits?
Habits are behaviors that we perform automatically, without thought, such as brushing our teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, even driving to work. (How many times have you arrived at work with no memory of the drive?)
These automatic behaviors make your life easier. Can you imagine how difficult driving would be if you had to think about every movement, such as turning the steering wheel properly or pressing the gas pedal with just enough force? Your drive to work would be jerky and quite hazardous.
But once you learn how to drive and practice often enough, the movements become smooth and automatic. You no longer think about them. You just drive!
Quick Tips for Creating Healthy Habits
Developing healthy habits is the same way. You practice them — and practice them and practice them — until they become habitual. And this takes time. A common belief is that it takes an average of 21 days to form a new habit, but that varies widely and depends upon the type of habit.
If you want to develop a daily morning jogging routine, for instance, it will probably take longer to become a habit than if you’re going to do a few simple stretches every morning while eating breakfast. Indeed, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit. (1)
But don’t let the time lag keep you from creating healthy habits. There are a few ways to set yourself up for success to make the process faster and easier.
Habit stacking involves pairing a new habit with an existing one. BJ Fogg created this method as part of his Tiny Habits program, (2) and it’s been proven to be highly successful. Here’s the basic formula: (3)
After/Before (Current Habit), I will (New Habit).
- After drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, I will work out for 15 minutes.
- Before eating dinner, I will drink a full glass of water.
- After I get up in the morning, I will change into my workout clothes.
Habit stacking works so well because it doesn’t require you to create a new behavioral pathway in the brain. Instead, you’re simply linking to habits already there, making it much easier for you to develop sustainable new practices.
Substituting good behavior for bad is also an excellent way to create healthy habits.
First, you need to identify the cue or trigger that activates the habit. For example, if you eat sugar-laden or salty snacks every time you’re under stress, stress triggers these unhealthy eating habits. Next, you must create a healthier response to that cue to change the behavior. Instead of eating unhealthy snacks, you can decide to go for a short walk every time you’re stressed. Or, practice 5-10 minutes of mediation, or listen to soothing music. The point is that you’re replacing an unhealthy habit with a healthy one.
With a bit of practice and a LOT of repetition, your brain will start associating specific cues with healthier behaviors, thus creating a new habit.
Reward Yourself Often
Science shows that bad habits can be challenging to break because they make us feel good. For example, smoking, eating a tub of ice cream, drinking a cup of coffee…all of these and more provide a certain amount of pleasure.
Our brains expect to be rewarded a certain way under certain circumstances. One reason for this effect is that the brain releases the feel-good hormone dopamine in enjoyable situations, making us repeatedly seek out that pleasurable activity.
But you can use this science to your advantage. To create a healthy habit, simply reward the positive as you meet specific goals, but don’t punish the relapses. For example, if you’ve eaten a healthy diet for two weeks, reward yourself with a trip to the spa. Or, if you’ve worked out every day for a month, reward yourself with a new pair of sneakers or exercise gear. Please also remember to praise yourself for your accomplishments. After all, it feels GOOD to live a healthy lifestyle!
6 Healthy Habits to Start Today
Now that you’ve learned a bit about changing habits, are you ready for some fun? Here are six healthy habits to help you look and feel better.
Eat Healthy Meals
Eating healthier is not difficult, and it is so much more filling than eating junk food. All you need to do is gradually switch over to a whole-food SANE diet while reducing or eliminating sugars, heavily processed foods., processed meats, fast foods, etc.
Here are SANE food categories in a nutshell.
- 10+ servings of non-starchy vegetables per day. Examples include spinach, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, onions.
- 3 to 6 servings of nutrient-dense protein per day. Examples include salmon, plain nonfat Greek yogurt, grass-fed beef, humanely raised chicken, cottage cheese.
- 3 to 6 servings of whole-food fats per day. Healthy fats include avocado, coconut, cocoa, nuts, seeds.
- 0 to 3 servings of low-sugar fruits per day. Examples include blueberries, oranges, grapefruit, peaches.
SANE foods are nutritious, filling, and delicious. They can also help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight, helping to reduce your risk of numerous medical conditions.
By contrast, ultra-processed foods are loaded with chemicals, artificial flavors, sugars, sodium, unhealthy fats and are devoid of fiber. Examples include white bread, potato chips, candy, soft drinks, and instant noodles.
These foods are neither nutritious nor filling and can raise your glucose levels, blood pressure, and weight, leading to multiple chronic diseases.
Support Brain Health
Clinical research shows that heavily processed foods are harmful to health in general and particularly damaging to mental health. According to a study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine:
“A link may even exist between fast food, processed food, commercial baked goods, and sweets and destruction of brain cells and a lowering of intelligence. Candy and sweetened baked goods may even stimulate the brain in an addictive fashion, which can lead to more serious illnesses.” (4)
So, eating a better diet is crucial for brain health. In addition to diet, mental exercises can also improve memory and cognitive function. After all, a body of emerging research shows that exercising cognitive function can boost brainpower. For example, a new study from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland suggests that early retirees have a higher risk of dementia than those who retire later. (5)
Why? Challenging your brain strengthens connections between brain cells. Plus, research suggests that learning something new “rewires” the brain, creating new neural connections.
The good news is that exercising your brain isn’t difficult and can even be fun! Here are a few ways to improve mental performance.
- Do crossword and number puzzles
- Assemble jigsaw puzzles
- Play card games with a group, e.g., poker, or alone, e.g., solitaire
- Play the word game Scrabble
- Learn new dance moves
- Play or learn a musical instrument
- Learn a new skill
- Practice meditation
- Learn a foreign language
Move Your Body
Studies suggest that regular physical activity may help:
- Increase insulin sensitivity
- Regulate blood glucose levels
- Improve heart function
- Reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
- Manage stress
- Reduce the risk of certain cancers
- And more
A regular fitness routine should also include a mix of aerobic and resistance exercises. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. You should also do strength-training exercises at least twice per week.
Aerobic exercises include:
- Brisk walking
- Jumping rope
You can use your body weight to perform squats, pushups, etc., or use free weights or weight machines for strength training.
Over the past few decades, numerous research studies show that chronic stress can depress the immune system, (7) potentially leading to a host of health conditions like cancer, respiratory illnesses, autoimmune diseases, and systemic inflammation. In addition, chronic stress may even cause structural changes in the brain and “can lead to atrophy of the brain mass and decrease its weight.” (8) These changes, of course, affect cognitive function and memory.
The science is clear that managing stress is essential if you want to live a long and healthy life.
Here are a few ideas that you can start using today to reduce stress:
- Practice meditation daily
- Take strolls in nature
- Binge-watch your favorite comedy series. (Research shows that laughter decreases stress hormones.) (9)
- Practice slow, deep breathing exercises
- Listen to music
- Do yoga
- Play with your dog
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation exercises
Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough quality sleep is a healthy habit that you’ll want to cultivate. After all, research suggests that sleep deprivation can impact your mental and physical health, increasing your risk of numerous medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even Alzheimer’s. It can also lead to traffic accidents.
Here are a few ways to sleep better.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends. Going to bed at the same time every night and arising at the same time every morning supports a healthy sleep cycle.
- Avoid caffeine close to bedtime. Caffeine is a stimulant that can interrupt sleep. Do not consume any caffeinated food or beverage at least four hours before bed to ensure it doesn’t mess with your sleep schedule.
- Avoid device screens before bed. The blue light emitted from your TV, smartphone, computer, and tablet screens can reduce melatonin production, keeping you from becoming sleepy. Thus, avoid any device screens at least one hour before bedtime.
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