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The power of habits

Our habits play an enormous role in our health. We’ve heard a lot of public health messaging about the dangers of some specific unhealthy habits such as smoking, gambling, or spending too much time staring at a screen – but we don’t often hear about the impact of habits in general on our health.


feet pedaling a stationary bike

You’re probably aware that a habit is something someone does regularly – but did you know that the word “habit” also describes the process of getting better and better at something that’s frequently repeated? When we do something over and over, we get better at it. If the thing we’re doing over and over is not so good for us, we can accidentally make ourselves better and better at the bad habit by practicing it regularly. For example, if I get into the habit of lying in bed at night ruminating about things I’m upset about, my brain will get better and better at turning on and running its rumination program. Over time, this can change the thoughts and beliefs I have about myself, and even my disposition, or ‘habitude’ (notice the root word there?). I might start to think of myself as an anxious or angry person, or a bad sleeper – when in reality, if I did something to break my rumination habit, I could probably stop thinking about things I’m upset about at night, and begin sleeping well again.

 

Fortunately, there’s a flip side to habits – healthy habits can have a really powerful effect on our health, just like the bad ones can. This might seem intuitive, but it’s actually rare that I come across a client who is consciously focussing on making a desired health behaviour a habit. Instead, people more often rely on motivation to help them make health changes. If they’re trying to become more active for example, they might get up in the morning and start trying to convince themself to go out for a walk. This often results in no walk – it’s too easy to get preoccupied with other things, and put off the walk until tomorrow . . . and tomorrow, and tomorrow. An alternative strategy is making a daily morning walk a habit - putting it on the calendar, and just going out and doing it, without doing any decision making related to whether or when to go. (**Weather is a factor that often leads to decision making and inaction – in our climate, I highly recommend choosing a habitual form of exercise that you will do no matter the weather, or having an indoor alternative ready to sub in on bad weather days).

 

Studies show that the people who are most successful with exercise do it first thing in the morning. They get up, put on their sneakers, and go exercise right away, before anything else can get in their way. They make it a daily habit. Non-morning-people can be just as successful when they pair exercise with another activity they already do every day. For example, they might decide to exercise before or after breakfast, lunch or supper, tack an extra 30 minutes onto one end of their work day (or their lunch hour) for exercise, or always exercise while they watch a specific TV show.

 

Getting back to the idea that our habits change our ‘habitude’ or the way we are in the world, many people find that once they start exercising regularly, they change the way they think about their body, and the way they think about exercise. They might notice that they actually feel way better after exercising in the morning than they do after having a cup of coffee. They might begin to feel like their body is strong, resilient and healthy, rather than tired, old, or weak. They might feel like they have more mental fortitude, and feel better equipped to meet challenges head-on.

 

Don’t rely on motivation to get you to exercise. Don’t try to pep talk yourself into doing it. Schedule it into your routine, and make it a habit that you always do at a consistent time. Start out by scheduling just a little bit (e.g. one walk, run, or bike ride, one 10-minute yoga practice, one exercise class) so you will be successful and feel like you’re making progress. Do it at your scheduled time whether you feel up to it or not. Choose a convenient time to do it so it will be easy to get started. Hold yourself accountable to exercising at that particular time, and consider rewarding yourself after a few weeks of doing it consistently. Before you know it, you will have a new habit, and feel healthier and more energetic.

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