How to Build Healthier Habits
Maybe you’ve made a personal pact to eat more healthy foods, but it’s snack time, and you open the fridge to find healthy options instead of something more … indulgent. You think, hungry and frustrated, "I’m going to treat myself just once." It’s Tuesday, and come Friday, those bell peppers are still sitting in the packed veggie compartment of your lower fridge.
Emotions have an impact on how you act. So, using mindfulness to practice nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance, as you witness them rise, may support you in building healthy habits. “The cultivation of mindfulness ... is shown to be transformative for new healthy habits and positive behavior change,” says David Vago, Ph.D., Roundglass research lead and neuroscientist.
What Are Healthy Habits?
“Healthy habits are the foundation for healthy living. What we do each day is what we become,” Rebecca Acabchuk, Ph.D., Roundglass senior scientist, says. Whether that’s eating healthy food, engaging in moderate exercise, turning to a healthy outlet when stressed, or regularly practicing meditation, healthy habits may help you access “the next steps on your unique path.” Leah Cullis, a Roundglass yoga expert, says.
While reasons for creating healthy habits may differ for each person, there are some general benefits you can repeatedly refer to when you find yourself re-evaluating the “why” of your new behavior.
The Perks of Building Healthy Habits
1. Building Healthy Habits Improves Performance
This is especially true during those high-stress, low-bandwidth weeks.
Research suggests the critical ingredients for better performance include getting enough sleep, eating well, and having a daily routine. Getting enough sleep reduces stress, helps in regulating emotions, and restores vitality. We know that food is a huge energy source for the brain and body. And a routine may provide structure that can help you sustain focus throughout the day.
You can think of these healthy behaviors like a doughnut-shaped pool float. You still have to use arms and legs to get around, but it’s the support under you that makes the process more manageable than treading water. Plus, you’re less worried about drowning because you have a tool in place to stop that.
In real life, healthy habits can provide the support you need to excel at your responsibilities or maintain them.
2. Building Healthy Habits Creates Balance
The behaviors you habitually engage in create your reality, so why not practice acting in a way that will support you no matter what circumstances may arise? "If you want to experience inner balance, you need habits that will lead to that," Christina Dufour, a Roundglass wellbeing and performance coach, says.
Emotional balance is best supported by a combined wholistic effort of eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough consistent sleep. In addition to these basic needs, “Creating healthy habits helps align our behaviors with our intentions and values, and this alignment creates a sense of inner balance,” Dr. Acabchuk says.
Maintaining balance also makes it easier to pull from what she calls “the bank of your health and wellbeing” whenever you’re triggered or tempted to engage in bad health habits.
3. Healthy Habits Provide Opportunities for Personal Growth
Imagine the bank of your health and wellbeing filled with nutritious food, breathing exercises for coping with stress, or yoga poses that make decision making less stressful. The more you deposit and pull from this reservoir, the easier it will be to replace those habituated responses with healthy new ones.
Now that we have the “why” behind healthy habit formation, it's time to navigate the “how.”
Start with the Basics: A Guide to Healthy Habits
Understanding the “why” of your new health behavior can help you set an intention, which may provide clarity on the course of action you can take to normalize your new healthy habit.
Setting an intention can also decrease the likelihood for “old habits to repeat themselves,” Dr. Vago says.
Pro Tip: After you’ve set your intention, engaging in your new health behavior may still feel uncomfortable. This is a good thing! “Start by seeing if you can change your perception [of the challenge]” Dufour says.
Step 1: Focus Your Attention on What Matters
Say you want to eat healthily, enjoy exercise, and work on self-image, but find you compare each accomplishment to beauty standards propagated on social media. Positively reinforcing your “why” can help you move through triggers that may induce “impulsive behaviors or poor forms of self-regulation like avoidance or frustration and anger,” Dr. Vago says.
Use nonjudgmental awareness to notice negative thoughts, and as you repeatedly connect with your breath, exhale them away. Channel the pause before your next inhale to focus your attention on your intention.
Changing the internal dialogue of your mind can help your body generate a more positive response to your present experience. This creates mental and physical space to receive the benefits of your new healthy habit. Since we’re wired to repeatedly do things that feel good, take comfort in knowing strengthening the “no” will get easier. Come back to this step when you think your reason for your healthy habit is challenged.
Pro Tip: Use meditation to practice letting negative thoughts go. In sitting practice, you learn to breathe through habituated responses, making it easier to experiences impulses without acting on them.
Step 2: Create a Morning Routine
Make it fun! One idea is to start your day off by listening to your favorite playlist. Research on the cognitive, physical, and emotional effects of hearing music suggests it may reduce stress, improve mood, and increase motivation, making it easier to get out of bed.
Next, use mindfulness to engage in any activity that can help you recognize and visualize the mental, emotional, and physical state you want to exist in each day. Whether that’s a round of breathing exercises, yoga poses, or simply setting an intention, keep these morning practices consistent. “I think most people...lack that consistent part. They don't have the follow through and nor do they really understand what that follow through can do,” Curtis Smith, a Roundglass meditation teacher, says.
Pro Tip: Low on time? Habituate this 10-minute technique to prepare yourself for each day, every day, it’s well worth it!
Step 3: Take A Power Break
It’s normal to feel burnt out after the first part of your day. Those last few hours following your lunch break can feel like eons for many.
Consider breaking up your day into two-hour chunks regardless of where you work. Taking five to 15 minutes two hours before lunch and then a couple of hours before you leave work can help you recharge. This new energy may also support you in changing your perception of a challenging project or relationship.
In one study, researchers used a mindfulness-based stress reduction education course to see whether it could decrease burnout and increase mental wellbeing, in a group of health care providers. The mindfulness program helped improve feelings of emotional exhaustion and personal accomplishment. Mental wellbeing was also increased.
While a traditional sitting meditation can help your mind and body reset, taking a power break could also look like walking around your block, enjoying a glass of water, or soaking up the sun outside.
Get the most out of these moments by staying focused on the activity, while reconnecting with the flow of your breath. Try to limit screentime during these short breaks, especially if your job entails a close relationship with a laptop or tablet. Give your senses some time to reset by reconnecting with the natural world.
Step 4: Practice Mindful Eating
Have you noticed how eating fits into your day? Whether it’s that “treat yourself” meal or absent-mindedly munching while you work, do you check in on your energy when the plate is empty? If the answer is no, it’s time to work on mindful eating as a habit.
When you mindfully eat, you pay attention to what food you are putting in your mouth and how that feels physically, energetically, mentally, and emotionally. National Institute of Health researcher Joseph B. Nelson suggests present-moment awareness can help you make better decisions about ingesting healthy foods. Vegetables or a fresh piece of salmon may make you feel light and nourished, instead of the brain fog that can happen after eating sugary or deep-fried foods.
Pro Tip: Try not to eat on the run or while watching TV. Multitasking makes it difficult to practice the awareness needed to eat mindfully.
Practice being aware of what you are putting in your mouth and how that lands in your body and mind with this guided meditation on mindful eating by Vishvapani Blomfield, a Roundglass mindfulness teacher.
Step 5: Make Gratitude a Habit
When you learn to look for the positive in your life, you can create space to receive energy that matches that outlook. “Most mindfulness-based traditions focus on this sense of joy and gratitude and virtuous states to describe one’s happiness,” Dr. Vago says.
Identifying daily moments to be grateful for can be challenging in the face of isms like racism, heterosexism, or ageism. It may feel like you have nothing to appreciate while experiencing prejudice or discrimination.
Practicing self-compassion in these moments can help to restore a sense of peace. Recognize that you may be feeling exasperated or scared and know this response is normal. You may not be able to do so right away, but make sure you take some time to engage in any activity that celebrates your rich culture and heritage.
Whether that’s laughing to your favorite comedian or cooking a special family recipe, remember this act of self-love is something to be grateful for. Research suggests practices that induce positive emotions may support you in building resilience to chronic stress.
Step 6: Unwind for Better Sleep
If you find that it’s hard to get to sleep or wake up at night, try following these simple guidelines that Dr. Vago says “can dramatically improve the quality and efficiency of your sleep.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Breus suggests creating a Power Down Hour, a technique consisting of three habits to adopt one hour before bed for improved sleep. He breaks them into 20-minute components that include:
1. Focus on essentials
Maybe you need to let your fur baby out one last time or should return your parent's call. Use the first 20 minutes of your hour before bed to complete the tasks that are necessary.
2. Take care of your hygiene.
This is a good time to brush your teeth, wrap your hair, or moisturize your skin.
Dr. Acabchuk suggests dimming the lights so your body can “increase melatonin levels naturally, which will help you fall asleep,” she says.
Pro Tip: If you use bright lights to take off your make-up, try to do this earlier in the evening. Exposure to bright lights right before bed can make it difficult for your body to preserve melatonin.
3. Make time for relaxation.
This could look like gentle stretching, listening to Lauren Ash, or journaling all your thoughts from the day. You can even use these 20 minutes to focus on everything you're grateful for.
Dr. Vago also recommends eliminating caffeine, large meals, blue light, and alcohol one to two hours before bed because they can prevent you from relaxing and unwinding. This makes it more difficult to fall or stay asleep. “Devices can emit blue light that interferes with our natural sleep cycles,” he says.
The Final Step: Let Go of Bad Habits
Remember that habits are automatic: they live in your body, so it will take repetition and focus to engage in new, healthy ones. Dr Acabchuk recommends, “setting up triggers to spur the desired behavior.” This could look like blocking off time in your calendar to meditate or pasting stickies around your home that remind you to take a sip of water.
You can also reward yourself with something that is important to you, every time you consciously engage in a healthy habit. Soon, you’ll train all those impulsive parts of you to create space for joy as you savor the benefits of embodying your new healthy habit.
Try this class, Use the 5 Buddhist Principles to Curb Negative Habits by Valarie (Vimalasara) Mason-John, a Roundglass trauma expert, to experience how meditation can help you release bad health habits.