We all have a general sense of what it means to be healthy: eat right and exercise. But those two things are hard enough, once you throw in the other aspects of health—like getting enough sleep, not getting too stressed, or kicking cigarettes—the notion of getting healthy makes anyone want to binge-watch and eat their way through the weekend. Where do you even start?
Hopefully, here; with our new blog, Breathing Room. We’re a group of educators from the University of Maryland Extension. We work across Maryland to help people live healthier by eating better, moving more, reducing stress, and managing finances. We want to use this blog to get you thinking about the little changes you can make to improve your health and well-being. We will be covering a lot of topics in this blog, but—as with most things related to health—they will have one thing in common: making a choice to create a new habit. After all, a healthy lifestyle is nothing but a series of habits.
So, let’s talk habits. A habit is a repetitive behavior that is so ingrained that it becomes automatic. Breaking a habit or creating a new one takes time, anywhere from weeks to years, depending on the habit. That means, if you keep trying all the latest diets and have turned your gym equipment into really expensive laundry racks, then start smaller next time. Setting big goals are great, but getting and staying healthy is a lifestyle, which means you need to create habits that you will enjoy and stick with. Drastic diet changes and grand workout plans are often too hard to maintain and just make us feel terrible. If you ask your healthiest friends how they got healthy, I promise they won’t tell you it’s because they slogged their way through life by depriving themselves of all the things they enjoy.
Everybody—and every body—is different. Finding the healthy lifestyle for you means finding ways to create healthy habits that will still leave you feeling good. Maybe you can’t give up chocolate cake, but you could wean yourself off of soda. Or maybe the idea of lifting weights makes you want to toss your sneakers into the trash, but walking with a friend sounds fun. Once you’ve made those smaller changes, you can start thinking about making bigger ones.
When breaking a habit, pay particular attention to the trigger that makes you perform your habit and the reward that you’re getting from performing it. If the box of cookies in the pantry triggers your 9pm sweet tooth, can you eliminate cookies from the house or replace them with something less sugary and caloric, like this chocolatey frozen treat? Maybe you love to laugh with your friends over dinner and drinks, but how about scheduling a walk, hike, or mud-run instead?
When creating a healthy habit, try to create a successful pathway. Maybe you’ve been paying that gym subscription for months but can’t seem to get yourself there. Would scheduling time with a friend or trainer get you there? How about taking your gym bag to work so that you can go straight to the gym instead of changing at home, where the soft, comfy couch will be singing her siren song?
If you and your doctor have a lot of concerns about your health, then work with your doctor to figure out a plan. Creating habits takes a lot of awareness, practice, and support before everything becomes automatic. Be flexible and try different things. You will have bad moments and, sometimes, days. But that’s ok—it’s a part of the process of learning and changing. Don’t beat yourself up when you mess up. And when you do get it right, make sure to praise yourself—you deserve that internal high five.