Making Healthy Lifestyle Behavioral Change
Making any significant change in life is hard. Most of our behaviors, whether healthy or not, are learned from the people and environments we associate with. Overtime our behaviors (whether unhealthy or healthy) have real consequences to our health and well-being. While change is often hard, it is achieve-able and worth it.
As we get older, we become less adaptable to change and struggle to get out of unhealthy habits.
When polled, 71% of Americans said they had daily unhealthy habits. One of the main contributing factors to not building healthy daily habits was time.
However, even with a lack of time, it is possible to build positive behavioral change into your life.
In this article, we'll look at the different stages of behavioral change and why it can be difficult to make a major lifestyle change that will last last. We'll then provide strategies to build healthy habits in your life.
What is a Habit?
According to the American Journal of Psychology, a habit is a fixed way of thinking or feeling. This occurs because of recurring mental experience.
Habits can also lead to behavioral tendencies that you do, often without thinking. A habit becomes ingrained in your subconscious; you don't even think about doing it.
For example, take brushing your teeth; you do it every day, but do you think about doing it? You spend 10 minutes of each day flossing and cleaning your teeth without even thinking about it or seeing it as a chore.
Why? Because you have trained yourself since you were a child to do it every day.
Repetition is an essential element for ingraining a habit. It's different for everyone and depends on many variables. It is difficult to predict the time to install new habits and that result in long-term behavioral changes.
A common theory flies around, suggesting it only takes 21 days to build new habits. This is not necessarily true, as it depends on the type of habit you are trying to develop and the motivation and reward behind it.
Why Are We Stuck in Unhealthy Habits?
Convenience has made it very easy for us to adopt unhealthy habits. If you can save time by making a convenient choice that's perhaps not the most healthy choice, you will do it anyway.
Many of us are stressed, and making positive choices can be even more challenging when we're under stress.
When we are time-poor, one of the first thing to slip is healthy habits. From preparing healthy food to exercising or relaxing, these are often at the bottom of our list of priorities.
Eating a burger and watching Netflix brings us short-term pleasure, and we are hard-wired to make choices that bring us pleasure. So when given a choice between a healthy salad or a tasty burger at the end of a long day, which are you going to choose?
Unfortunately, our bad habits are killing us. High blood pressure caused by a poor diet and smoking are the two leading causes of death globally.
What Are the Stages Of Behavioral Change?
To understand why we make poor choices even though we know the consequences, let's look at the behavioral change stages.
In 1993 professors Prochaska and DiClemente from the University of Rhode Island developed a model to understand the mental process of making change. This method is the transtheoretical model of behavior change, which is still a common way to understand our own psychology when making gradual, life-long change.
There are six stages in the process of making behavioral change. Let's take a look at them in more detail.
1. Pre-contemplation Stage
Before you are ready to make a significant change in your life, you are likely to be in denial that there's anything wrong. You may not be aware that your behavior is damaging to yourself or others.
People in the pre-contemplation phase are not ready or willing to change anytime soon. They may overestimate the downsides of making a significant lifestyle change and how hard it will be.
It's hard to recognize you have to change if you don't realize you have a problem. So if you think you may be in this stage of the behavioral change process, ask yourself would something significant like a health scare or loss of an important relationship have to happen to realize you have a problem?
Think about how you feel about any unhealthy behaviors you may have and how they affect you emotionally. Try to be more mindful about your day-to-day decisions and notice if some of the behaviors you have are unconscious.
2. Contemplation Stage
By this stage, the person is aware of the benefits of making a change, but the pros for making the change don't outweigh the cons.
This person is considering making a healthy change but isn't highly motivated to do so.
At this stage, you are still ambivalent about making a change; the thought of the cons holds you back from taking action. You may see making change as giving something up rather than gaining physical or emotional benefits.
If you are in the contemplation phase, think about why you want to change and what's holding you back.
Most people don't make it past the contemplation stage, so you are on the right track if you can consider the above questions!
3. Preparation Stage
The preparation stage is when you start to dabble with change. You know you want to make a change but aren't entirely on board with making it yet. You intend to make the change relatively soon, perhaps within the next 30 days.
Maybe you start to research healthier meal plans or techniques for managing stress. You begin taking small steps to see if you can begin to make some progress. Maybe you've told your friends and family about your plans.
When you are in the preparation phase, you are at high risk of failure, as you aren't fully committed to making the change yet. To make it easier, write down your goals and how you intend to make the change.
At this stage, it may be useful to elicit support from others to help you stay motivated and hold you accountable for accomplishing your goal.
4. Action Stage
When you make it to the action stage, you take specific actions to achieve your goal. Perhaps you go to the gym three times per week for an aerobic exercise class or substitute a healthier, whole-foods meal for processed-food three times per week.
Reflect on how far you have come and how your progress to-date makes you feel. Notice how the changes positively influence your life, or maybe even others.
Also, think about your motivations, and remember why you want to continue striving toward your goal.
This should encourage you to continue on your journey!
5. Maintenance Stage
The maintenance stage is about keeping up your new healthy lifestyle behaviors. You have taken consistent, positive actions towards your goal for some time and want to keep going. It's a challenging stage.
Resist the temptation to slip back into old habits with the maintenance stage. If you become stressed, it may become easy to fall back into your old ways. Reward yourself when you resist temptations so you can keep your new behaviors going.
Stay strong, and seek support to help you keep up your good habits.
Remember your incremental successes along the way. Remind yourself of why you decided to make this change in the first place.
6. Relapse Stage
With most behavioral change, relapse is likely going to occur, at least from time to time. You will have some failures, but don't let them discourage you to the point of giving up.
If you are trying to change a highly addictive habit, such as smoking or alcohol, relapse is hard to avoid, but don't quit. Don't let relapse undo all the hard work you've done. Seek support and encouragement from people who can help, especially the one's consistently living the desired behaviors in their own lives.
Having a relapse shouldn't undermine your self-confidence and how far you've come. You've already proven to yourself that you're capable of, and worth it. Look at your wins and stay optimistic about all the small changes you've made up until this point.
You can go back to the action and maintenance stage.
Why Is Making Long-term Changes so Hard?
When we try to make behavioral changes for the better, it can sometimes feel like all the odds are against us. At every corner, there's temptation lurking to lure you back to your old behavior.
It can be easy to give up when you don't see immediate results. Say you want to lose weight, but you still weigh the same after a week of eating healthier foods. You may feel discouraged by your efforts and think, well, why am I bothering?
The key to sustaining long-term change is not getting discouraged by what may seem like a lack of success. Success comes from small, consistent actions towards your desired goal over time. You need to remember that slow and steady wins the race. Tracking your progress can also help you see that you are making changes, even if it's not visible on a day-to-day basis.
Our brains are wired for pleasure, and everything in modern society is geared towards providing us with that pleasure, from the dopamine hit from likes on social media to the joy of eating something sweet and fatty. You are constantly surrounded by temptations for pleasure.
Choosing healthier options over short-term pleasure can be challenging and is one of the reasons it's easy to relapse into old behaviors when you're trying to make a change.
Being unrealistic and unspecific about what you want to achieve can also set you up for failure. We'll go into more detail about how you can avoid this later in the article.
Change is Supposed to Be Uncomfortable
We all struggle to make changes; nobody is better or worse than you at making positive behavioral changes. We all procrastinate at times or do things we know we shouldn't. We all have tendencies to slip back into bad habits, not do something we said we would.
What's the difference between those successfully in the maintenance stage of change and those who aren't?
It is simply a matter of persistence-consistent choice and action. People in the maintenance stage have gotten to a point where the outcome from the behavioral change is more desirable than the outcome from not making the change.
Making positive lifestyle changes is never easy for anyone. The difference between success and failure is being able to endure the downsides of change.
You always have a choice; you can prepare a healthy meal at home or order a pizza. Preparing a wholesome meal may not be convenient but will have a more beneficial outcome.
When it comes to behavioral change, it's about enduring perceived short-term pain for long-term gain. You need to remember that it takes effort but brings reward.
How Long Does it Take to Make Behavioral Change?
As previously mentioned, the ability to install a new behavior is different for every person. It also depends on the behavior they want to change.
It can take weeks, months or longer to make a behavior shift for the better. If you want to succeed, consider focussing on small incremental changes along the way.
Going on a diet for two months to lose 10 pounds won't make you healthy in the long term. But gradually substituting a salad and water for what was formerly a highly processed meal, starting once per week then working your way up to three times a week, will bring positive results.
Tools to Master Long-Term Change
Now we've discussed the psychology behind making behavioral changes; it's time to give you some actionable tools you can use to make a change. Whatever you want to achieve in your lifestyle, you can use these tips to do it.
The first thing to consider is set a goal. What do you want to achieve? The key to developing effective goals is to make them realistic. You need to be specific about what the goals are.
Being generic won't help you. For example, saying "I want to be healthier" isn't a goal. Saying "I want to get aerobic exercise three times a week" is a goal.
There's an excellent framework for goal setting called SMART. This stands for:
Using this framework, you could set a more specific goal such as "by the end of next month, I want to participate in a Pilates exercise class three times per week." It's specific, measurable, and something you can plan into your schedule.
Using this specific goal, you can break out of the behavior of not exercising. You can make it even easier to achieve this goal by booking exercise classes for those three days a week in advance. Then you have the accountability that you must attend the appointment.
This specific goal can help you go for your overall goal of getting healthier.
Have a Plan
If you don't plan how you will achieve your goals, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Write down at the beginning of each week how you plan to achieve your goals. It can be as simple as drinking a whole-foods smoothie each morning. So add the ingredients to your shopping list.
Making simple steps such as having healthy ingredients in your fridge, or putting your supplements next to your coffee cup, will help you build healthy habits.
We often make a mistake when we want to change a behavior by planning too much at once.
For example, most New Year's resolutions fail because they are too grand. You want to lose weight, stop smoking, and run five times a week as part of one resolution.
That's too many things to focus on at once! Take baby steps to start implementing the changes you want in your life. It could be as simple as walking to the store rather than driving.
Substituting a piece of fruit for a bag of chips (or some other processed snack food) twice per week could be another simple, small change that leads to success over time.
Make Your Habits as Easy as Possible
You want your new healthy habits to become an automatic part of your life, just like brushing your teeth is. If you give yourself too much opportunity to procrastinate or think about them, you are more likely to fail.
Ideally, you can make healthy decisions without even thinking about them! Maybe you've decided your goal is to exercise more, so make it as easy as possible to do that. Set up an exercise machine in front of your TV so when you want to watch TV, you can also work out.
Maybe you want to meditate every day. Then set up an alarm in the morning that gives you a morning meditation. Want to do yoga? Put your mat next to your bed so that you are reminded to stretch when you get out of bed.
Doing things first thing in the morning is a great way to have them done, and then you don't need to think about them for the rest of the day.
Seamlessly slipping these habits into your life will help you stick with them.
Remove Barriers to Success
On top of making your new behaviors easy to fit in with your life, try removing things that may get in your way.
Want to give up your ice cream-binging habit? Then don't buy ice cream! If it's not in your freezer, you can't eat it!
Hanging out with people who encourage you to get into your old behaviors is also not going to help. Spend less time with people you think negatively influence you.
It's OK to Fail
Nobody is perfect; we are all just human, after all. You need to be OK with the fact there will be failures along the way when you make behavior changes.
If you binge on some chocolate when you're trying to be healthy, it's OK. Forget about it and move on.
Don't punish yourself for not being perfect. Behavioral change is about consistent, small, positive steps and being kind to yourself for what you have achieved so far in the journey.
If you are super strict with yourself, you will likely relapse. For example, saying you can never eat chocolate again is much more unrealistic than saying you now limit chocolate to twice a week.
Remember that life is about balance, and we can treat ourselves from time to time!
Have an Accountability Buddy
Involve your friends or family in your goal setting, tell them about the changes you want to make. A support system is crucial to being able to achieve your goals.
You want to tell them how well you've done, and you want them to hold you accountable.
Ask a friend who also wants to make a similar lifestyle change to join you in the process. You can check in on each other and hold yourselves accountable to one another.
Ask for Help
If you struggle with your new lifestyle changes and feel yourself slipping back into your old ways, it's OK to ask for help! You can ask a friend, a coach, a counselor, a therapist to encourage you.
It's hard to make significant changes alone, so don't hesitate to ask for support when you need it most.
Use a Habit Tracking App
Tracking your progress is a great way to see how far you've come and make yourself feel proud.
Using an app that tracks your habits, gamifies the process, and makes it more fun to meet your daily goals. Whether it's taking 10,000 steps or drinking 2 liters of water a day, being able to visualize your progress is very helpful.
Change Requires Desire and Commitment
As you've learned, making behavioral change is not easy. It is a long process and a struggle for most of us. The only way you can make real, long-term change is if you really want it.
Understanding the motivations behind your desire for change is the best way to get started. Then you can work on creating a realistic action plan on how to make those changes.
Small, simple, positive steps results in positive change for the rest of your life.
If you want some support in creating a healthier lifestyle for you or your family, checkout our online healthy lifestyle course.
Jay Todtenbier is an original founder of SupplementRelief.com in 2010 and has operated the business ever since. He is also a tennis instructor and gospel musician. Formerly he spent 25 years in business development, technology and marketing with startups and major corporations having gone through the tech boom in Silicon Valley in the 90s. He became passionate about, and began studying and practicing Wellness as a Lifestyle after experiencing chronic, personal health challenges including depression, auto-immune disorders, and being overweight that impacted his ability to live a healthy, vibrant life. Since then, he has been an advocate for healthier living encouraging others to live better through making small, gradual changes to lifestyle behaviors relating to whole-foods nutrition, stress management, reasonable exercise, proper sleep, and the use of targeted, high-quality supplements.
Learn more about Jay Todtenbier.
We encourage you to take advantage of these FREE Wellness Resources on our website.
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