How to Build Healthy Habits that Last

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By Adrienne Herrenbruck

It’s summertime, and you are probably being inundated with articles highlighting ways to get your summer bod for all those beach days. This, is not one of those articles.

As an exercise physiologist I’ve worked with many people over the years who are trying to get healthy and lose weight. The one thing that rings true for all of these clients? Dieting doesn’t work.

So if restriction doesn’t work, what does?  Habits.

Habits can be hard because it’s less straightforward than the well-known calories in vs. calories out.  Not only is it more difficult to quantify (something Americans are obsessed with), but it’s also difficult because healthy habits can mean something different to every single person.  My habits won’t look like yours. While this is frustrating initially for many dieters, I hope you can embrace this truth and the freedom it gives.

Before I dive into my top suggestions for building healthy habits, let me spend a little bit more time convincing you.  Habits are controlled by the subconscious brain. In fact, the majority of our daily behaviors are not conscious choices we make, but patterns our brain follow automatically.

To better understand this, think of your brain as a forest.  There are so many trees (triggers/information) and brush (all the clutter from the day) that it is difficult to navigate. The best way to make it from one side of the forest to the other is to create a well-worn path. If I take the same path every day, it will become easier and easier to get through the forest.  This is also true of our brain. Those well worn paths? Those are your habits.

Our brain loves taking paths it already knows.  When it does this, it can make decisions on it’s own, without consulting us.  The moment the brain decides to take a new path, when we consciously decide we’re not eating an entire large pizza while watching the bachelorette, this takes willpower.  Willpower is like the machete we use to get through the forest. Eventually it gets dulled by all the work it’s done and our brain gives up and goes back to the well worn path.

All this to say, you have a limited amount of willpower, and once it’s gone there is no hope of you making a conscious choice.  This is the primary reason late night binging is such a rampant issue. Many people use up all their willpower all day long trying to restrict and follow new rules, so when they come home, their willpower is gone, and it’s back to the well-known path of eating all the things.

Here’s the exciting part: those well-worn paths can be healthy habits, just as easily as they can be unhealthy.

One note: creating a new habit does use willpower, so don’t think you can start 10 new habits at once.  My recommendation is to tackle one new habit each month, building ever so slowly until you reach a lifestyle that you truly love.  Here are my top ways to get started on creating a lifestyle build on habits:

1) Visualize your future

Sit back and think of a complete day in your future.  What time do you wake up? What do you have for breakfast?  When do you workout? What type of workout do you perform? Do you meditate or have quiet time?  Get as specific as possible, writing down every detail you can.

You just build yourself a set of habits to work on.  Choose one that you believe will have the biggest impact on your lifestyle (this doesn’t have to mean which one will make you lose weight fast, FYI), and start working on it now.

2) Drop the all-or-none mentality

I believe one of the most harmful mindsets adopted through dieting is the idea that you’re either “on” or “off” the wagon.  This just isn’t true. There is no wagon. It’s time to drop the perfectionist mindset and realize that if you ate a cookie, that’s perfectly fine. Be curious about how it made you feel (not judgmental) and move on.

3) Do healthy things you enjoy

Don’t like kale?  Then why are you eating it?  Hate running? Stop already. I’m not here to give you a prescription of what healthy is supposed to look like.  It looks different for everyone, but one thing it should always include is happiness and joy.

Altogether, a healthy lifestyle should be a full and fun lifestyle.  Not one of restriction and rules. Identify areas you would like to change, start making daily incremental process, and always remember to do what you love.

Adrienne is a certified exercise physiologist and a visiting instructor of exercise science  at College of Charleston. She loves helping people ditch the diet mentality and start living a full and healthy lifestyle for good.  When she’s not working out or testing new recipes, you can find her chilling on the beach with kombucha in hand.  

Get Adrienne’s Ultimate Guide for Building Healthy Habits for Life.

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