In Part 1 of this two-part series examining habits and achieving successful behavioral change, we learn why habits matter, how they’re formed, and why they’re so vital for our well-being.

Habits. We all have them. Some habits are good for us, like brushing our teeth in the morning or putting on a seatbelt when we enter a car. Other habits, like snacking on junk food late at night or reaching for a cigarette when feeling stressed, are not. Habits are ingrained in our day-to-day lives, and so adopting the ones that benefit us is critical for our health and well-being.

Why habits matter

Our daily habits have a direct and significant impact on our health. We may recognize the need for healthier habits like eating healthier and exercising, but actually making behavioral changes that last can feel like a pretty tall order. If you have tried to improve your habits but have struggled, you are hardly alone. It is estimated that 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February of each year. This is discouraging, but successfully learning to adopt healthy habits is nonetheless essential: the CDC attributes 40% of the risk associated with preventable, premature deaths like heart disease, cancer, and stroke to unhealthy habits such as poor diet, physical inactivity, smoking, and poor sleep.

How does a habit form?

When a habit is first formed, we repeat a set of actions and associate them with a time of day or location, called a cue, within our memory. For example, waking up in the morning triggers a set of habits: go to the bathroom, shower, brush teeth, get dressed, and make coffee. This association guides our behavior so that it is automatically triggered whenever we encounter the cue and is so strong that it causes us to act without even deciding to do so. What is the motivation behind this? We form habits because we believe that they benefit or reward us in some way.

Habit formation in action

Suppose you walk to work on a hot summer day. You spot an ice cream shop, stop in, and buy a cone. You savor it, feeling satisfied and content. The next day, you buy another cone at the shop on your way to work, enjoying it again. Before long you realize you are buying ice cream daily on the way to work, which could explain why your pants are suddenly feeling a bit snug. What happened? Walking by the ice cream shop acts as your cue to buy ice cream. Your reward?  Taking pleasure in a sweet treat. The power of habit is so strong that one study found that subjects who habitually ate popcorn consumed as much stale, week-old popcorn as they did fresh while watching a movie, even though they found the taste of the stale popcorn to be unappetizing.

Understanding the Stages of Change

The science behind how we form habits is well-known, but why some people succeed and some fail at improving behaviors is less understood. One evidence-based model called Stages of Change helps explain why making new healthy changes can be a difficult, lengthy process for so many. According to this model, at any given time we are in one of five stages of change:

·      Precontemplation. There is no intention of making a change during this stage because either you lack awareness or have tried and failed to make a change in the past.

·      Contemplation. You are aware your behavior is problematic but have not yet committed to making a change.

·      Preparation. You realize you must change and feel confident that you can. You take initial steps to change, like join a gym or put a calorie-counting app on your phone.

·      Action. You have finally made the change and face the challenge of living life without the old habit. You may incorporate healthy coping strategies like exercise or deep breathing when encountering an old trigger.

·      Maintenance. You have practiced the new behavior for six months and are ready to integrate it into your life. You will steer clear of certain old triggers to prevent a relapse.

These stages are discrete, but progressing through them is usually never linear, and the amount of time it takes depends on the person. Relapse is common, although it is rare to revisit the precontemplation stage. If a relapse does occur, it is important to learn from what went wrong and improve your plan for the next time.

The challenges facing habit intervention programs

Many interventions created to help improve behaviors are quite effective initially, but do not generally show lasting results in the long term. Several reasons can explain this. Feeling stressed or having a busy schedule can derail new behaviors, and many intervention strategies lack built-in methods for maintenance. Also, even when new habits are formed, old habits are not always extinguished. Relapses can occur because past environmental cues activate old unhealthy behaviors.

Behavioral change in practice: better habits for weight loss

Behavior modification programs do not always produce lasting results, but two recent studies shed light on interventions that did. In the first, subjects wanting to lose weight were encouraged to repeat 10 simple healthy eating and exercise behaviors. After 8 weeks, the intervention group lost 4.4 lbs compared with 0.88 lbs lost among those not on the program. As healthy habits were established, the weight loss continued to increase over time, amounting to a loss of 8.4 lb even after 32 weeks. The subjects reported that these new behaviors became second nature.

A second study revealed that overweight participants who designed their own weight loss routines, put in place cues at home to encourage healthy eating and exercise and granted themselves rewards immediately after engaging in healthy behaviors, lost 15 lbs over 3 months and continued to lose up to 20 lbs over 6 months. The group that did not design and engage in their own structured routines similarly lost 15 lbs after 3 months but gained back 5 lbs at the 6-month mark.

What you should know

Overcoming harmful habits and adopting healthier ones in their place may require effort, but doing so is vital as the quality and longevity of your life depend on it. Changing your daily behaviors in a positive way may not only affect how you feel today, it also increases your likelihood of leading a healthy, independent life as you age.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Making Healthy Behavioral Changes That Last.