The Power of Habitsby Amy Chang Radosevich, MA, ACSM, ACE, AFAA
I recently read an article on how consumers decide what to eat and how our environment often encourages poor choices. I was amazed to find out that we make an average of 200 decisions each day about what and how much to eat in various settings. While reaching into the candy jar at work for a handful of candy may not seem like much on one occasion, if we combine that with the bag of chips that came with your combo meal deal along with the large soda, now our daily caloric consumption just increased to an impactful amount.
While we are not the only ones to blame for making these decisions as we do live in an “obesogenic” environment, where sedentary living and overconsumption are often encouraged, it is still ultimately up to us to take charge of our own health and well-being. Better yet, we can be a positive role model for our loved ones. Harvard researchers found that our chances of becoming obese increased by 37% if our spouse had become obese, 40% if a sibling had, and 57% if a friend had. No matter how good our intentions are, we often mimic the diets of those around us and our perception of what’s right or normal could get skewed. Fortunately, the same is true for healthy habits. Researchers have also found that when one spouse participated in a weight loss program, the partner lost weight too.
While decisions take conscious thinking, habit is defined as “recurrent behavior that’s become nearly or completely involuntary and is hard to give up.” To a certain extent, we are all creatures of habit. Researchers estimate that more than 40% of our daily actions are habits and not decisions. This makes sense as this frees up our time to attend to other complex tasks and demands that warrant conscious thought. In fact, habits happen in the basal ganglia of our brains whereas decisions are made in the prefrontal cortex. If we can make nutritious food choices and an active lifestyle mostly habitual rather than a decision we have to make each and every single time, our chances of long term success in a healthy lifestyle just got a whole lot better.
How long does it take to form a habit? Some say 3 weeks, other say 6 months. Research has shown that it in fact varies anywhere from 18-254 days for a behavior to become automatic! It’s also important to know that it’s often easier to establish a new habit than to break a bad one. So our strategy could be to build new good habits and crowd out the bad ones over time.
What are some good habits you can consider building if one of your goals is to lose weight and keep it off? The National Weight Control Registry tracked more than 10,000 people who have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for 5.5 years. Here’re some healthy behaviors they have established:
These could get you started and you can gradually implement them over time and not try to do it all at once. Come up with additional ones not on the list above and share them with us! Remember to set yourself up for success and celebrate little victories along the way. Habits take time to build. The key is consistency and persistence. Let’s Fall into some old “healthy” habits this season!
Ward, E.M. 2014. How Do Consumers Decide What to Eat? IDEA Fitness Journal, July Issue.
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