Are you thinking about making some positive changes in your life, but you’re unsure where to begin? Healthy habits, such as eating more vegetables, drinking enough water, or exercising regularly, play an essential role in promoting overall health and well-being. Read more about the importance of integrating healthy behaviors into your life and learn some simple tips to make your efforts more successful.
What is a habit?
A habit is a behavior that is practiced repeatedly and subconsciously over time. (1) Habits can be either positive (e.g., exercising daily, wearing a seatbelt, brushing your teeth) or negative (e.g., smoking, heavy drinking, drug use). Forming a positive habit requires behavior modification, which may involve substituting an unwanted behavior for a positive behavior. (7) The habit formation process consists of three phases, including:
- Initiation: This is the first phase of the habit formation process during which a new behavior is initiated.
- Learning: The behavior is repeated consistently during this phase. Many people may lose motivation during the learning phase.
- Stability: The habit has been formed and is adhered to with minimal effort. (6)
Why are healthy habits important?
Certain habits contribute to overall health and well-being, whereas some habits can have negative consequences. For this reason, it’s essential to establish sustainable healthy habits.
Did you know that there is an entire branch of medicine dedicated to understanding and promoting healthy habits? Lifestyle medicine studies how habits and behaviors influence the prevention and treatment of disease. (12)
A large body of evidence recognizes that our daily habits can either promote or prevent many chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. (12) Furthermore, some habits play an important role in disease management for individuals who have already been diagnosed with a chronic condition.
Evidence-based healthy habits
Outlined below are some of the most significant and evidence-based healthy habits.
Tobacco use contributes to many conditions, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. If you use tobacco products, the good news is that your risk of many chronic conditions drastically improves after you quit. (12)
Adhering to treatment plans
Failing to adhere to treatment plans established by your health care provider can result in suboptimal results or poor condition management. (1) Adherence, which the World Health Organization defines as “the extent to which a person’s behavior—taking medication, following a diet, and/or executing lifestyle changes—corresponds with agreed recommendations from a health care provider,” is essential for proper care and management of health conditions.
Engaging in regular physical activity
Strong evidence suggests that physical activity is associated with a decreased risk of nearly every chronic condition. Exercise has been shown to promote cardiovascular, bone, brain, and mental health, improve sleep, reduce risk of certain types of cancer, and increase feelings of general well-being. (12)
Following a healthy diet
A healthy diet that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean protein and limits consumption of refined grains, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and processed meats is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and other chronic conditions. (12)
Maintaining a healthy weight
Excess body weight can increase your risk for developing many chronic conditions. By maintaining a healthy weight through regular physical activity and a healthy diet, you can prevent, delay, or manage chronic conditions. (12)
Reducing stress levels and fostering mental health
Manage your stress and improve your mental health by staying physically active and getting plenty of restful sleep. Other techniques, including practicing deep breathing and meditation, (4) spending time in nature, (5) and even practicing gratitude and forgiveness, can improve mental health. (12)
How long does it take to build a healthy habit?
It depends. You might have heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit on average; (6) however, research demonstrates that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to be successful. (11) The length of time it takes to establish a habit depends on the complexity of the behavior—the more elaborate the habit, the longer it may take for it to become an unconscious part of your day. (6) For example, choosing to strength train twice per week and engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly may take longer to implement successfully than a more simple habit such as drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning.
It’s normal to lose motivation and struggle to maintain a healthy habit, particularly in the learning phase of the habit formation process. Thankfully, habits begin to get progressively easier over time until they finally become an unconscious part of your routine. (6)
Tips for building healthy habits
Use these simple tips to help you form healthy habits.
Create a SMART goal
Establishing a clear objective from the get-go can increase your chances of achieving your goal. When setting goals, consider using the SMART goal setting guidelines. The SMART acronym stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-related. (2) Read more about SMART goals on the Fullscript blog.
Visit your integrative healthcare provider
Your integrative healthcare provider can help you establish healthy goals and behaviors by working one-on-one with you to develop a realistic action plan. Your practitioner can also provide guidance and support along the way to help improve your chances of success.
Establish a routine
Establishing routines in your daily life can encourage you to adhere to your goals and healthy habits. Research demonstrates that individuals who engage in healthy behaviors tend to have consistent daily routines. For example, several studies noted that participants who successfully maintained their weight loss long-term were most likely to participate in regular exercise and adhere to a consistent diet without skipping meals. (13) In fact, participants in one study who reported a consistent diet were 1.5 times more likely to maintain their weight loss than those who were less consistent (i.e., loose adherence during weekends). (8)
Furthermore, incorporating your treatment plan into your routine, whether that involves taking your daily prescribed medications or supplements, engaging in regular exercise, or making specific dietary modifications, can help you reach your health goals more easily. (1)
Use daily event-based cues
Performing your habits around a particular time of day or activity can serve as a daily reminder. For example, if your goal is to walk at least 10,000 steps per day, plan to go for a walk after lunch each day. If your goal is to eat out less frequently, plan to pack your lunch for the next day at dinner time. Simply performing your healthy habit concurrently with a daily mundane task can increase the likelihood of success. (1)
When presented with a choice, you may be more likely to choose the easiest and often least healthy option. By planning ahead, you can reduce the number of decisions you need to make in the moment. For example, if your goal is to eat healthier and consume less fast food, set aside time in your week to plan and prepare healthy snacks and meals. Preparing your meals in advance ensures that you always have healthy options at your fingertips, which can reduce the temptation to grab food from a drive-through restaurant. (1)
If you’ve tried to break a bad habit or learn a new healthy habit, you’re likely familiar with how challenging the process can be. Seeking support from a friend, family member, or support group can provide a safe space for you to voice your struggles and celebrate your successes. Research also demonstrates that social support may promote behavioral change. (9)(14)
Social support is especially important for individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. According to several studies, individuals struggling with addiction who received support from a relative or significant other during treatment reported improved treatment outcomes and experienced fewer and less severe episodes of relapses than individuals who did not have the same level of support. (3)(10)
Track your habits
Some people may find that using a daily log or mobile app to keep track of daily healthy habits is useful for maintaining consistency. A simple paper checklist with each day of the week and the healthy habits you’re trying to achieve can suffice. (6) Download a printable habit tracking sheet.
Examples of habit tracking apps include:
- Habit Tracker
Remember that it can take weeks to months to establish a healthy habit. Don’t expect perfection overnight and allow yourself some flexibility. Occasional nonadherence is normal and unlikely to disrupt your progress, so rest assured that you don’t need to practice perfect adherence to accomplish your goals. (1)
The bottom line
Adopting healthy habits takes time, persistence, patience, and some planning. If you’re a patient, consult your integrative health care practitioner before making any significant lifestyle changes.
- Arlinghaus, K. R., & Johnston, C. A. (2018). The importance of creating habits and routine. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 13(2), 142–144.
- Bailey, R. R. (2017). Goal setting and action planning for health behavior change. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 13(6), 615–618.
- Broome, K. M., Simpson, D. D., & Joe, G. W. (2002). The role of social support following Short-Term inpatient treatment. American Journal on Addictions, 11(1), 57–65.
- Carter, K. S., & III, R. C. (2016). Breath-based meditation: A mechanism to restore the physiological and cognitive reserves for optimal human performance. World Journal of Clinical Cases, 4(4), 99.
- Ewert, A., & Chang, Y. (2018). Levels of nature and stress response. Behavioral Sciences, 8(5), 49.
- Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664–666.
- Gardner, B., Sheals, K., Wardle, J., & McGowan, L. (2014). Putting habit into practice, and practice into habit: A process evaluation and exploration of the acceptability of a habit-based dietary behaviour change intervention. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11(1), 135.
- Gorin, A. A., Phelan, S., Wing, R. R., & Hill, J. O. (2003). Promoting long-term weight control: Does dieting consistency matter? International Journal of Obesity, 28(2), 278–281.
- Greaney, M. L., Puleo, E., Sprunck-Harrild, K., Haines, J., Houghton, S. C., & Emmons, K. M. (2017). Social support for changing multiple behaviors: Factors associated with seeking support and the impact of offered support. Health Education & Behavior, 45(2), 198–206.
- Kelly, S. M., O’Grady, K. E., Schwartz, R. P., Peterson, J. A., Wilson, M. E., & Brown, B. S. (2010). The relationship of social support to treatment entry and engagement: The community assessment inventory. Substance Abuse, 31(1), 43–52.
- Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.
- Rippe, J. M. (2018). Lifestyle medicine: The health promoting power of daily habits and practices. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 12(6), 499–512.
- Wing, R. R., & Phelan, S. (2005). Long-term weight loss maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 82(1), 222S-225S.
- Yoshikawa, A., Smith, M. L., Lee, S., Towne, S. D., & Ory, M. G. (2020). The role of improved social support for healthy eating in a lifestyle intervention: Texercise select. Public Health Nutrition, 24(1), 146–156.