Three Steps to Maintain Health Habits

SBM: three-steps-to-maintain-health-habits

Mary Riley; Research Program Coordinator, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey

Carolyn J. Heckman, PhD; Associate Professor, Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey

Behavior change can be difficult to initiate and even harder to maintain. Often people have great intentions to make a healthy change in their lives such as quitting smoking or beginning a workout routine. These plans can often become derailed or lack commitment over time leading to a return to former unhealthy habits. What is the secret to creating healthy habits and staying healthy long-term? There is no magic solution, but here are three steps that may help someone begin and maintain a new health habit:

Step 1: Set several small achievable goals

A Chinese Proverb said “It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward."1 This quote rings true for healthy behavior change. Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief that he or she has the ability or skill set to accomplish a goal. When undertaking a behavior change, it can be difficult for an individual to see the end goal as accomplishable because it seems so large and far away. This can lead individuals to give up on a behavior change before they’ve even started. In order to increase the confidence that someone has in their ability to reach the end goal, individuals should set smaller, more attainable short term goals.

For example, people interested in pursuing a healthier diet may set a short term goal of replacing sugared beverages with water or replacing a daily snack of chips with fresh fruit for a period of time. This does not require them to change their whole diet immediately but to gradually make healthier choices that move toward the end goal. This broken down goal schedule allows an individual to create an actionable strategy to reach each specific objective making the overall goal not seem so large. With this, individuals will see the little victories in the process of behavior change and strengthen their belief that they can achieve the overall goal.2

Step 2: Understand your motivation and plan for rewards

What motivates a person to quit smoking? Health concerns? Social perception? Money saving? Understanding the ‘why’ behind the behavior change can help people identify what rewards would influence them to maintain the habit-altering process. Some people may be intrinsically motivated by the end result of the behavior change, and others may need some external push to keep them going. After setting up small achievable goals, individuals should implement a reward schedule to match these units of achievement. Returning to smoking: if the person is motivated not so much by the health benefits of quitting but by the cost savings, he or she may benefit from setting aside part of the money saved by not buying cigarettes to do something he or she enjoys. The external reward of receiving a spa day or a night out with that extra money may help keep that person motivated to maintain this behavior in the long term.3, 4

Step 3: Make a public commitment

As social creatures, humans can be driven by a desire to fit social norms and expectations. People often choose to behave a certain way when they know someone is aware of their actions. This social pressure to maintain a certain appearance, act a certain way, or be perceived in a certain light can be helpful when planning for behavior change. When deciding to begin a healthy eating plan or quit smoking, individuals may find it helpful to make a public commitment to this behavior change. This pledge can be to friends or family in person or even to the broader public on social media. Stated goals should be small, achievable, and relate to a specific behavior.

The overall ambition may be to lose weight, but the public commitment should focus on a targeted behavior that will help you reach that goal, such as taking a walk each day this month. The public statement of commitment to a behavior change increases the person’s accountability for his or her actions.5 People interested in maintaining a new habit may benefit from “outsourcing” their accountability to others.

There is no foolproof solution to starting or maintaining healthy habits, but these strategies can help you approach the process with a little more confidence. Breaking down the why and how of a behavior change can be the difference between success and failure.

  1. Unknown A. Traditional Chinese Proverb.
  2. Bandura A. Self-Regulation of Motivation and Action Through Goal Systems. 1988.
  3. Meule A, Kübler A. Food cravings in food addiction: The distinct role of positive reinforcement. Eating behaviors. 2012;13(3):252-255.
  4. Cahill K, Perera R. Competitions and incentives for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2011(4).
  5. Lokhorst AM, Werner C, Staats H, van Dijk E, Gale JL. Commitment and Behavior Change: A Meta-Analysis and Critical Review of Commitment-Making Strategies in Environmental Research. Environment and Behavior. 2013;45(1):3-34.

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