Maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle may seem like a chore or an unachievable goal for many. Studies show that approximately 50% of people initiating an exercise programme drop out within 6 months. This will obviously be for a number of reasons, including lack of enjoyment, perceived lack of time, difficulty with the exertion required and accessibility to an exercise venue.
One factor that is associated with continued participation in exercise and sustaining a diet that is good for us is the development of rituals or habits, so that less energy is required to process the thoughts about exercise or healthy eating. How difficult is it to clean your teeth twice a day, or make a cup of tea when you wake up, or eat certain foods at a particular time of day? Not difficult at all if you have made that a habit.
Habits can of course be beneficial or detrimental to our health, and it would be ideal if we could learn to initiate ones that are health enhancing.
Habit forming is of less importance if you are intrinsically motivated to exercise and eat well. If you have very strong values that encompass looking after your health to the best of your ability and you match that with your behaviours then it is easier to live that healthier life. Intrinsic motivation is enjoyment of exercise or healthy eating for its own sake. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the desire to engage in behaviours for the rewards it will bring such as social acceptance, a changed body shape or competition success. This type of motivation is not linked with sustained behaviour change as much as intrinsic motivation.
There are a few steps to be taken when replacing unhealthy behaviour patterns with healthy ones.
Firstly acknowledging that habits begin with two personal dispositions : feeling in control of one’s life and taking responsibility for one’s health and quality of life. Justifications for not exercising, not eating properly and maintaining other self destructive lifestyle behaviours result in a sense of helplessness, and negative habits persist.
Secondly, forming a 24hour activity chart detailing when in the day you plan to eat regular healthy meals, take breaks from work, exercise for 30 minutes, wind down before bed, take time for reflection and other habits or rituals that lead to improved quality of life. The scheduled new routines will in time replace the negative habits. Examples would be replacing carbonated sweet drinks with water, replacing sweet desserts with fruit and having a short walk after a meal. Inserting each new ritual into a specific time frame and location will improve adherence to it.
Thirdly, recruiting social support, such as a partner or friend who will support your efforts to reduce or eliminate some undesirable habits. They can hold you accountable for changing behaviours and assist in encouraging regular exercise, or even help develop an action plan for change.
Changing entrenched behaviours is challenging and will not come easy. You need to have a strong desire and determination to change : half hearted attempts at change will lead to failure. It is important to be realistic in your expectations of habit change and seek out support from various sources. It could take two to three months of new rituals for it to become second nature, and benefits are not always obvious at first, except probably a sense of feeling better, of achievement and control.