Time for change

The Influence of Habit on Health

Updated January, 2023

Have you developed some unwanted habits that are now getting in the way of your health goals?

  • Eating more sugary foods
  • Increased intake of caffeine or alcohol
  • Not eating enough vegetables
  • Put on some unwanted weight
  • Lost some muscle tone

You may have added some new habits to your new routine that aren’t serving you. 

Understanding Habits

A habit is the body’s brilliant way of conserving energy by cutting down on the number of decisions we make every day.

When you do something new, you’re using the prefrontal cortex, or “thinking”, part of your brain. If you continue to do that thing over and over, the brain will build pathways that establish in the “memory” part of the brain or basal ganglia.

Consider the act of tying your shoes. When you were first learning to tie your shoes, you had to concentrate on making the loops the right size and holding the laces with the right amount of firmness to tie a solid bow. Now, you can tie your shoes while you’re talking on the phone and standing on one leg.

Driving a car, taking a shower, or brushing your teeth are all things that we do largely out of habit and with little conscious effort. Thank you, basal ganglia.

Our health practices can also be rooted in habits we have set to unconscious memory. Understanding how we can break and make a habit is key to our success in establishing new healthy habits and getting rid of unwanted ones.

Understanding Your Habit Loop

Look closely at habits you have established that may be influencing our health goals. What we are craving may not be what we expect. Here’s an example:

Your goal is to eat less sugar, but every afternoon at 3:00 pm you find yourself in search of something sweet. 
It’s almost like you didn’t even think about it. What’s more, is that when you try not to go for the food you start to get anxious. 
You can’t stop thinking about that anticipated sweetness.

Trying to employ pure willpower to avoid a craving is going to be exhausting and not very successful because it goes against the pathways you’ve established in your brain. Instead, take a closer look at the habit loop.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit says that habits can be broken down into a loop that consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward.

The Cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. In this example, the cue is the fact that you’ve been sitting at your desk working diligently since lunch and it is now 3:00.

The Routine is the physical or emotional process that happens. You take a break and walk around. Maybe you stop by the restroom. You pick up the treat and sit back down at your desk, take a bite and start in on that email response to your boss.

The Reward is the part of the loop that tells your brain this is worth remembering. We might say the reward was the treat, but perhaps it wasn’t…

What if the reward is really about the break and movement you got en route to the treat?

To test it, simply make a change in the routine:

Take a different route and rather than going by for the food, take a walk outside. Maybe reach out to a friend or family member for a few minutes on your walk. Then, go back to your desk and dive into that email. By the end of the day are you still thinking about the treat?

Or, what if your brain is craving sugar at 3:00 pm because your energy is low?

To test it, you could get up and take a walk (outside again!). Go make yourself a cup of tea. Do some simple stretches and take some deep breaths, or play some energizing music. Check-in on your energy levels before you sit back down to that email. Better?

This is example is oversimplified and these things take time and practice. But, by adjusting the routine even a little bit, we can begin to make small changes that drive a lasting impact on our goal.

More tips to change habits:

  1. Make changes easy and small. Tiny. This is contrary to our culture where we think big. But to make big changes last, we need to start small. Learn more tips and get examples for setting small diet and lifestyle changes from Chris Kresser.
  2. Build a crew. Change is difficult and anything difficult needs support (and accountability). Engage friends, family or coworkers to encourage you and make changes with you. Sign up with Jen or Stacy for professional help to provide information and guidance to get you going. Take that step!
  3. Lean into the process. Making changes take practice and it’s OK to fail a little…or a lot. Taking on challenges and learning from failures are part of the process. Let it happen.
  4. Celebrate the small stuff. No need to pop the champagne, but a celebratory fist pump or a pat on the back is just as important. Brag (in a nice way).

We’d love to help you discover whatever is influencing your goals and how you can change your health…one habit at a time.

Additional Resources:

At Be Balanced Healing, we know the path to sustainable health is rarely a direct one. We focus on approaching your goals from all angles, so you get lasting changes that works for you.

Looking at habits are just one way to get in touch with your personal relationship to food.  Unwanted habits often create extra stress and anxiety around eating or contribute to disordered eating behavior. 

Stacy St Germain, certified by the Institute for Psychology of Eating, can help you learn more and get started in rebuilding your personal relationship to food and changing some of your unwanted habits.  Learn more at: Relationship to Food

Time for change