Strategies for Quitting Bad Health Habits

August 07, 2019

Woman eating unhealthy food
Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN

Let's face it, changing some of your worst habits is a challenge. Although you may know that bad health habits, like smoking, drinking too much alcohol or overeating unhealthy foods, can wreak havoc on your well-being, they are hard to break.

Making healthy lifestyle changes can prevent more than 80% of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancers and Type 2 diabetes. Here are tips to empower you to make permanent changes.

Bad Habits Die Hard

Why is it so hard to break bad habits? Habit formation is a complex thing, as multiple areas of the brain — science calls this the 'brain's habit network' — are involved. One theory is that habitual behaviors are formed through multiple signaling processes in the brain at the same time; therefore, it's difficult to pinpoint one specific way to change a habit. Behavior change, such as quitting smoking, is a dynamic process that's influenced by environment, as well as self-perception. Each person has different motivations for quitting a bad health habit.

Slow Small Changes

When it comes to change, slow and steady wins the race. According the American Psychological Association, lifestyle changes require time and support. Commitment and follow-through are the toughest parts of changing some of your worst habits, so setting small, realistic goals is the key. If you bite off too much, your chances for success are slim. Keep in mind, bad health habits develop over time, so be patient and plan how you are going to make the change.

Planning Creates Purpose

Plan specific strategies for realistic goals. Write down how you are going reach your goal. For example, if your long-term goal is to lose 25 pounds, focus on losing half to 1 pound per week. How are you going to do that? You may want to bring lunch and healthy snacks to work and cut out excess eating when you get home at night.

Strategies to Just Say No

We fall into cycles of unhealthy habits like eating highly processed foods or smoking cigarettes because they can be comforting. To break a habit, you need to make significant changes. Here are some surefire strategies:

  • Change your environment. Take a different route to work if you're tempted to go through a fast food drive-thru, or move the candy dish in your office to a different location (or fill it up with fresh fruit). Workout in the morning before your stressful day begins so you can't make excuses to skip your workout later.
  • Get support from friends. Every time you are tempted to light a cigarette or open a bag of chips on the couch, call a friend to stop you from doing that negative behavior. This can help break the cycle and desire for whatever you want in the moment.
  • Set a regular routine. When you eat, sleep and exercise at regular times, it sets you up for creating healthy, lasting habits. It's easier to say no to extra calories if you just ate lunch and know that you have a snack with you. A routine allows you to be more intuitive with your eating, and listen to hunger and fullness feelings more often.

One Day at a Time

Pick yourself up and keep moving forward if that unhealthy behavior creeps back in. Talk to yourself with kindness, compassion and forgiveness like you would a friend. By moving forward and not dwelling on the past, you give the behavior less power and create a new thought framework around it. Free yourself to live in the moment and allow yourself to grow into a new way of living — and leave past behaviors behind.

Apps for Change

Technology can support your lifestyle change efforts in numerous ways. Here are a few to check out:

  • Lark is a virtual personal coach app that tracks your activity, eating and sleep habits from your smartphone's sensors. The app simulates the personal coaching experience through your own mobile device. With a positive voice on the other end, it encourages a better sleeping schedule and healthier food choices. It also has a built-in community to help motivate you.
  • My Fitness Pal lets you set your own personal weight loss goals and track your daily caloric intake.
  • Sleep Genius gives a scientific approach to creating a restful sleep environment and healthy bedtime behaviors (also called sleep hygiene). It also pinpoints your perfect bedtime. The sleep technology in this app "uses elements to engage the brain's sleep centers by combining expertise from neuroscientists, as well as sleep and music experts."

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