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How can I change my health habits?

Lisa Oz
Health Education
If the thing you want to change is refraining from an old behavior rather than incorporating a new one, you'll want to use a slightly different technique. Say you have an undesired habit, like smoking or using foul language. In this case, the best thing to do is just stop. Okay, I know that sounds ridiculous. What we are talking about here is not resisting the impulse. Instead, disrupt the routine. When you catch yourself in the middle of the unwanted action (like cussing like a sailor), insert a completely incongruous word, thought, or action (for instance, say "lemon custard," think about naked windsurfing, or hop backward).

It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you disturb the sequence of behavior. It is always helpful to do something a little wacky, something so far removed from the original thought or action that it sends your brain for a loop. The next time you find yourself falling into habitual behavior or emotion, see if there is a story behind it. When you start to hear this story in your head, break the pattern by mixing it up. One way is to change nouns. For example, if the story is, "I would be happy if only Johnny would get back together with me," try, "My dog, Fifi, would be happy if only Johnny would get back together with me" or "I would be happy if only Abraham Lincoln would get back together with me" or "I would be happy if only Johnny would get back together with Paris Hilton." The whole thing becomes rather absurd, and the story loses some of its power over you.

Another technique for change is to realize that you don't need to wait until you "feel like it" to start. The part of you that's comfortable with the status quo, that needs the security of knowing that tomorrow will be more of the same, will resist all attempts to psych yourself up for anything different. The key is to act even when you don't really want to. This seems counter to everything we've learned about changing behavior. What we're taught is that once we generate sufficient motivation, the new behavior will come without effort. But often, I have found the opposite to be true. Sometimes, you need to just do it. The purpose and the passion will come once you are engaged.
You can do a lot to improve your fitness by simply changing a few habits. Here are some ideas:
  • Take the stairs, not the elevator.
  • Walk whenever you can, instead of driving.
  • Get off the bus a stop early.
  • Stand up while talking on the phone.
  • Lose your TV remote control -- get up to change channels. Or, get up and move during commercials.
  • At work, use lunch hours and coffee breaks to take a walk around the building.
  • Make social occasions more active -- instead of dining out, go dancing!
Kate Myerson
Nutrition & Dietetics

Think about what is most important to you, make a list. It sounds like your health is important to you think about what you can do that could make healthier changes. 

Now, pick one that you think would be the easiest and start there, small steps. Trying to make too many changes at once can be difficult and hard to maintain because habits are hard to break. They are easier if we take them on and focus on them one at a time. If you pick one to start on that is easier you will build your confidence to take on the hard ones later.

When changing health habits, it's easy to be motivated for a week or so, but motivation alone won't pull you through. It simply isn't enough to keep new behaviors going. All these skills need to be included in your plan to ensure the best chance of success: setting a goal, monitoring your progress, arranging your world for success, recruiting a support team, and treating yourself. Good health doesn't happen just because you really want it, but there isn't any magic involved, either.
Living SMART: Five Essential Skills to Change Your Health Habits Forever

More About this Book

Living SMART: Five Essential Skills to Change Your Health Habits Forever

The myriad of books and programs that encourage people to stop smoking, get organized, spend less, or exercise more tend to focus on what or why to change, but rarely explain how to change. Living...

We read articles everywhere about getting a fitter body in three weeks, or eating healthier in 30 days. Adopting healthier habits can be tough, however. Try these steps to increase the odds of your success:

  • Think small. Don't shoot for the moon and say you'll exercise every day. Instead, say you'll exercise twice a week.
  • Try changing only one habit at a time. Don't give up junk food, adopt an exercise plan and change your bedtime all at the same time. Pick one and work toward the others.
  • Write down specific steps for achieving your goal. To exercise twice weekly, for instance, you might note that you'll wake up at 7 a.m. on Monday and Thursday to walk 30 minutes before work.
  • Repeat what you're aiming for as often as possible. Even if you miss a day, all isn't lost. The more you repeat a behavior, the more likely it will become natural.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.