Health Habits: How to Stay Motivated!

By Christine Van DusWhen I was in sixth grade – yes, sixth – my dentist and orthodontist teamed up with my mother in getting me to stop sucking my thumb at night. They presented me with a calendar, the days all blank boxes, and told me to use sad and smiley faces to keep track of when I did or did not use my personal pacifier. I don’t remember the prize because there were too few smiley faces on the page.

I only broke the habit once I realized how mortifying it would likely be to get caught sucking my thumb at, say, a ninth-grade sleepover party. If only my family had known a little bit more about the science behind building good habits and breaking away from bad ones.

“Bad” habits are formed with greater ease primarily because the “good” consequences come quickly. Eating junk food tastes great as soon as it hits your tongue while it tends to take time to create and see the benefit of “good” habits – like switching out Cheetos for salad.

For many of us, one of the hardest habits to build is a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise. Part of the reason, experts say, is because to do so means breaking another habit – being sedentary.

How can we create and maintain healthy habits in our lives?

“One of the best ways to start a new habit is to start small, explains William Ott, a senior physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist with Northwell Health. “You want to make this action so easy that you can’t say no to it. If you’re starting to do push-ups, ask yourself to do one. If you’re going to start walking, ask yourself to walk for five minutes only.”

Dr. Ott adds willpower is fatigue-able, so that you don’t want to depend on it for your motivation to get through a task. One thing to remember is that the rewards from these good habits may be slow to show up.

“Remember that it took a long time to get out of shape,” he says, “so it’s only natural that it will also take a long time to get back into shape … focus on the small tasks that you can handle and control, because at the end of the day, the things you can sustain will be the things you will actually do. That’s how you create a habit … Consistency is king.”

Also set yourself up for success. “When you’re starting new habits that’s super important,” Ott says. “If you want to eat healthier, don’t have junk food in the house. Then you won’t have to resist the cookies.”

“Be clear and specific,” he adds. “Don’t just say that you want to work out. Set hard guidelines for yourself, make it simple and easy, and you’ll get there.”