ways to make healthy habits stick
8 Ways to Make Healthy Habits Finally Stick
By Beth Janes Posted 06-21-2019

See if this scenario sounds familiar: There’s some aspect of your life that you want to make healthier — whether it’s eating less junk, getting more exercise or sleep, managing stress more effectively, or all of the above — so you set out to do exactly that by adopting better habits. But sooner rather than later, your efforts fall by the wayside, and you revert back to your old ways.

Maybe some life event threw you off track, or you got busy. Maybe you simply gave into temptation. Perhaps it was just too difficult to keep up, or you don’t even know what happened.

Regardless, don’t feel bad — ditching bad habits and adopting new, healthy ones can be tricky, and sticking with them for the long haul even more so. Unfortunately, though, many people continue with this cycle or just give up all together. They then end up ignoring nagging symptoms and putting up with less than optimal health.

“If you’re not feeling or sleeping well, or don’t have energy, it’s human nature to put the work of making change on the back burner,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan.

Hospital room with beds and comfortable medical equipped in a modern hospital.

Traditional medicine and our country’s healthcare systems don’t necessarily incentivize people to live healthier either. “There’s been a clear message for the last 75 years or so: Eat and do whatever you want and tear your body apart, and we’re going to be here to fix you,” Dr. Rawls says. But that’s simply not true, especially when it comes to chronic illness.

There’s no drug on earth that can actually restore your health; the only thing you can do is change your health habits,” Dr. Rawls says, adding that it’s the worthiest of endeavors: “Your body is your vehicle for experiencing this life, so how well you take care of your body is going to dramatically influence your life experience.”

So, if you’ve tried and failed in the past, whatever your goal, pick up the torch again. Except this time, you can approach it in a smarter, more strategic way. By following some simple steps and tricks, adopting and sticking with healthy habits will seem easier and help you be more successful.

1. Educate Yourself.

When it comes to changing habits, you’ve got to first truly understand why you’re doing it and what you’ll gain. “Without making that connection, you have no real reason to change your health habits,” Dr. Rawls says. Indeed, learning exactly how food and lifestyle impacts your health helps drive home why it’s vital to change your habits in the first place.

woman using mobile phone in front of the library, female hands with smartphone, selective focus

For example, the more you learn about what a typical carb-loaded and processed food-heavy Western diet does to your body, the harder it will be to mindlessly dig into that fast-food burger and large fries. Ditto being sedentary, falling short on quality sleep, and leading a high-stress lifestyle. (In short, research has repeatedly shown that all of the above habits are strongly linked to a myriad of chronic diseases, from Alzheimer’s and cancer to obesity and heart disease.)

On the other hand, the more you learn about the awesome healing power of a plant-based diet, taking the right herbs, an active lifestyle, 8 hours of sleep a night, and ways to work around stress, the easier it will be to make choices that help you achieve those goals — and better health, Dr. Rawls says.

2. Try Habit Stacking.

It’s a term coined by researcher BJ Fogg, and one author James Clear writes about in his book Atomic Habits. It means that you piggyback a new habit onto an existing one.

For example, if you want to take herbs every day but have a hard time remembering, put them near your coffee maker if you drink a cup every morning, or by your toothbrush, and couple the herbs with that daily habit. “I have all my supplements out in the kitchen, and now they’re just part of my daily routine,” Dr. Rawls says. “I take them every day, and I know I won’t feel as well if I don’t.”

capsule and spoon detail. Yellow background. daily dose concept. Health care photo

Cues also work. For example, if you work in an office and spend time on the phone, every time the phone rings, stand up and walk around or stretch. Or, in the evening at home, use your dog’s scratch at the door as a cue to add some lunges to your walk around the block.

3. Swap Big Goals with Small, Doable Ones.

Too often, people set ambiguous goals such as, “I’m going to eat healthier,” or “I’m going to start getting more sleep,” without defining what that means exactly in the context of their lives or getting into the nitty gritty of how they intend to do it.

Another issue, Dr. Rawls says: There are now so many diet and exercise plans and programs around sleep and stress available, and they all give different rules or theories — it overcomplicates things. “People do them for a while, then gravitate to other, easier ones to follow,” Dr. Rawls says.

Satisfied and happy smiling girl lying on sofa in room, and writing in journal

A better bet is to replace big, broad ambitions with small, crystal-clear, and detailed ones that slowly but surely lead you to your end goal. Also, be sure to start gradually, with only one or two at a time, and build from there, Dr. Rawls says. Or, similarly, set out to follow the rule one or two days a week, then gradually add a day each week.

The goal is success, and even the littlest successes can be a major motivator for adopting additional habits in the future. Here are a few ideas for exchanging grandiose goals for smaller, more achievable ones that start to move you forward:

Instead of: Eat healthier.
Try: Make vegetables 50% of your diet.

This automatically sets you on a healthier track and is relatively easy to gauge, Dr. Rawls says. Simply think of your plate like a pie chart.

Instead of: Exercise more.
Try: Go for a walk after dinner.

Or, set a step goal for the day that’s a few thousand more than you usually take. Just make sure it’s doable and specific. Smart watches and phone apps can help you keep count.

Instead of: Sleep better.
Try: Tuck into bed at 10 p.m.

Or whatever time you need to give yourself roughly eight hours of Zzs.

4. Tweak Your Self-Identity.

As you begin to practice your healthier habits, internalize that they’re part of you who you are now. Research suggests that when you tie goals directly into your identity, you’re more likely to follow through.

Case in point: A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America looked at voting behavior and found that people who framed voting as part of their personal identity (e.g. “I’m a voter) versus a behavior (“I’m going to vote) were more likely to hit the polls. The findings can easily be extrapolated to all kinds of healthy behaviors.

Beautiful senior woman with bicycle cycling outside in spring nature.

So, for example, don’t only think or say, I’m going to eat 50% vegetables, or I’m going to go for a walk every day. Also think or say, I’m a plant-based eater or I’m a walker/active person. And if you tend to think of or call yourself a couch potato or junk food addict, for example, it’s especially important to flip the script!

5. Hack Your Mindset.

Your mind is more powerful than you can imagine. You can change your entire experience of a challenge just by reframing how you think about it. For instance, a study published in PLoS One found that subjects who had more positive expectations of themselves before exercise actually found the activity less strenuous.

Smiling Senior Man Looking At Reflection In Bathroom Mirror Wearing Pajamas

The takeaway for you? Go into a new habit or change believing and telling yourself that you will keep it up, that failure is not an option, and that you’re up for the challenge. Another way to tweak your thinking: Instead of focusing on what you’re giving up or how much you will miss it (whether it be potato chips or a late-night Netflix binge of your favorite show), focus on everything you’re gaining and all the good that you’re doing for your body.

6. Don’t Force Yourself to Plan Ahead.

Most people have heard the familiar advice that if you’re trying to eat healthier and start exercising regularly, you’ve got to plan your meals, prep food for the week ahead, schedule your workouts, etc. But, while planning may work for some people, Dr. Rawls has found that it often doesn’t work in the long term.

“When you ask people to plan ahead or say, ‘Here, I want you to plan for this recipe,’ they just don’t do it,” he says. “What I’d rather they do is be able to go to the cabinet or look in the refrigerator and say, ‘Okay, I’ve got these things, and I’m going to make a nice meal out of it.’”

Smiling senior couple buying vegetables and fruits at the market

Are you a novice in the kitchen and don’t know where to start? A quick Google of your ingredients should offer some ideas. When it comes to grocery shopping and exercise, you can stick with the same no-plan strategy. “Just buy a whole bunch of vegetables and commit to eating all of them before they go bad,” Dr. Rawls says.

As for fitness: “I don’t plan to ‘do exercise.’ Instead I try to look for opportunities throughout the day to be active,” says Dr. Rawls. “I ride my bike and take breaks from work to do some yoga poses or lift 10-pound weights I keep in the office. Or I take my phone and go for a walk as I dictate ideas.”

Active vacations and weekend outings are also a great way to gradually start to become fitter and healthier overall. “It’s about making physical activity a part of your life rather than planning or forcing activity into your schedule,” says Dr. Rawls.

7. “See” Your Healthy Habits.

Visual reminders of whatever you’re trying to turn into a habit can be helpful, Dr. Rawls says. That means, for example, putting veggies front and center and at eye level in your fridge so when you open the door, they’re the first thing you see. “This helps ensure that your fridge’s vegetable bin doesn’t become a compost bin,” he says.

sport, fitness, shoes, footwear and objects concept - close up of sneakers on wooden floor

If you’re trying to be more active, keep your sneakers or weights where you can see them often. Want more sleep? Make sure the look of your bedroom conveys calm, rather than chaos (think: cluttered stacks of unread magazines or piles of unfolded laundry, both of which are visual reminders of undone to-dos).

8. Share Habits and Goals with Friends.

Turns out peer pressure doesn’t necessarily end when you grow up and are out of school — it just takes on a slightly different, less overt form, especially when it comes to health habits. Research suggests that both healthy and unhealthy habits can be contagious among friends.

In one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, researchers found that friend groups tended to either become heavier over time or stay at healthy weights. Analysis revealed that it wasn’t just a case of people finding those with similar habits, but rather a direct, causal influence on obesity status within friend groups.

The takeaway: Share your health goals and habits with friends, and ask them to both help you stick with your goals or join you in your pursuit of better habits. After all, just about everything is more fun and easier with friends.

Cheerful friends sitting in courtyard enjoying the afternoon together. Group of four mature people sitting outside home and laughing. Happy senior man and old woman enjoying with mature african couple.

Whatever your specific health goals, know that a healthier lifestyle that includes lots of vegetables, health-supporting herbs, avoiding toxins, physical activity, stress management, and plenty of sleep will pay off tenfold. It may be tough to get started and stay the course at first, but over time, when you experience just how much more energy you have and how much better you feel both physically and mentally, those habits will become more and more ingrained — until they become a natural part of your routine and your life.

References
1. Bryan, Christopher J. et al. “Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 2; 108(31): 12653–12656.
2. McGregor, Jena. “How to make a habit stick (and it’s not about trying harder)” The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/12/22/how-make-habit-stick-its-not-about-trying-harder/?utm_term=.913b991c283f
3. Mothes, H. et al. “Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise?” PLoS One. 2017 Jun 29;12(6):e0180434.
4. Christakis, NA and Fowler, JH. “The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years.” N Engl J Med. 2007 Jul 26;357(4):370-9.

About the Medical Director
Dr. Bill Rawls
Dr. Rawls is a licensed medical doctor in North Carolina and a leading expert in integrative health. He has extensive training in alternative therapies, and is the Medical Director of Vital Plan, a holistic health and herbal supplement company in Raleigh, NC.
  • Dr. Bill Rawls

    ABOUT BILL RAWLS, M.D.

    Dr. Rawls is a licensed medical doctor in North Carolina and a leading expert in integrative health. He has extensive training in alternative therapies, and is the Medical Director of Vital Plan, a holistic health and herbal supplement company in Raleigh, NC.

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