The Power of Habit in Health and Fitness
Today’s post discusses some thoughts I had on how Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit” relates to building better health and fitness habits. So if you are hoping to turn around your health and fitness in 2017, give this a read and see why understanding the habits that drive your everyday life are essential to making that change
Enjoy today’s article…
One book that had been on my list to read for a while was “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. I had heard a number of people discuss it and give praise to how good of a book it was. I had been told it was heavily based in the current scientific research on habits, and that it was also highly practical.
So, after many months of this book sitting on my bookshelf, I’m happy to say that I’ve finally read it. And the good news is that I wasn’t disappointed!
Habits are essential when it comes to health and fitness, yet so many of us don’t really understand how habits work. How are they formed? Can we control or change our habits? Do habits really drive so much of our day-to-day behavior?
These are all questions that are answered in Duhigg’s book, and after reading it, I have a new-found appreciation for just how important it is to understand habits when it comes to making positive changes in health and fitness.
Today I’d like to share some of these insights with you, especially since this is a time of year that is ripe for habit changes and resolutions. If you’re planning to make some positive changes in your health and fitness in 2017 then changing your habits will help you do just that.
Duhigg contests that the majority of our day-to-day lives are made up of habits, rather than carefully thought out actions. He says this in the prologue to the book:
‘All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,’ William James wrote in 1892. Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits. (Duhigg xv-xvi)
Perhaps if all that is true, then the key to reaching your goals this year is simply learning how to change your habits. Often, we fall short of the resolutions we make because we only look at the outcome we want, yet we don’t change the day-to-day behavior – the habits – that allow us to reach this goal.
Whether you want to lose weight, put on muscle, eat better, or begin exercising, taking a look at your current habits is the place to start. What habits do you have in place that are getting in the way of your goals, and how can you change them?
Of course, nobody ever said that changing a habit is quick and easy, but understanding how habits work and how they can be modified will set you up for successful change. It will help you reach your goals.
How and Why Habits are Formed
Our brains rely on habits for so much of life because it helps the brain save effort. Turning a routine into a habit allows the brain to ramp down more often, so we don’t have to constantly think about basic behaviors, such as walking or choosing what food to eat. This allows us to devote mental energy to more important things like creativity or an important work task.
Turning a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, like driving to work or getting dressed, is a process called “chunking.” We rely on many behavioral chunks, which we call habits, every day. Without these habits we would need to deliberately think about each little action we take throughout the day, and that would wear us down.
The Habit Loop
While powering the brain down into “habit mode” is efficient, you don’t want to power down at the wrong time. To avoid this, our brains use a clever system to determine which habit to follow and when. Duhigg refers to this system as, “the habit loop.” This loop consists of three steps: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
The cue is a trigger that tells your brain when to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. The routine can be physical, mental, or emotional, but this is the part which we refer to as a habit. Finally, the reward is the result of the habit just performed, and it tells us if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.
In Duhigg’s words: “Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.” (Duhigg 19).
How to Change a Habit
While the habit loop is essential when it comes to understanding how habits work, if you want to change a habit, you must know what drives the habit loop. And that is a craving.
Our brains learn to keep a habit, whether good or bad, because they begin to crave the reward at the end of the habit loop. That reward could be the endorphins or sense of accomplishment you get after a workout, which makes exercising a habit, or that reward could be the taste of fried, salty foods that you get from a fast-food restaurant. Either way, the habit loop remains in place to satisfy a craving that our brains have learned to desire.
Often, these cravings are so internalized and subtle that we are unaware they exist. We may not even be aware of what specific cue and reward are associated with the habit we perform every day. But if you want to change a habit, you must take the time to understand what cue is telling you to perform the habit, what reward you derive from performing the habit, and what craving you are seeking to satisfy by performing the habit.
Once you are aware of these factors, you can work to change the habit. But to do this you must follow what Duhigg refers to as, “The Golden Rule of habit change.” This rule states that: you can’t extinguish a bad habit; you can only change it.
In order to do this, you must use the same cue and reward, but change the routine.
This is why it’s almost impossible to just quit cold-turkey from one of your habits. Whether that habit is smoking, drinking, eating fast-food, or watching T.V., if you try to extinguish a habit, more often than not you’ll fail.
Instead, you must figure out the exact cue and reward associated with the habit, and then replace the habit – or routine – while keeping the cue and reward in place.
So, to successfully change a habit, try doing some experimenting to figure out what cue, reward, and craving drive the routine that you want to change.
For example, let’s say you want to stop drinking coffee. Do you really know why you drink coffee habitually? Do you know what cue pushes you to make the coffee? Do you know what specific reward is telling you that this is a habit worth keeping? Do you know what craving is being satisfied by drinking coffee?
These questions may seem straightforward, but the more you think about it, the more you realize there could be many different answers. But in order to change the routine, you must narrow it down to the specific cue, reward, and craving that is driving this habit.
The cue could be that it’s morning, and making coffee is what you do when you first wake up. It could also be that you’re bored, or need a break from work, so you get up to get a cup of coffee. The cue could be the massive headache that’s forming because you’re addicted to the caffeine and you haven’t had any coffee for several hours.
To begin your habit change, you must figure out the exact cue that tells your mind to automatically go into coffee-making mode.
Secondly, what reward do you get from drinking coffee? Is it the caffeine that keeps you awake, alert, and focused? Is it the taste of coffee that you enjoy and that is satisfied after a cup? Is it the fact that you were just hungry and coffee was the quickest thing you could get to fill your stomach? Or is it that you just like something hot to sip while you work?
Any one of these rewards could be the one that is truly driving your habit of coffee-consumption, but which is it? If you figure this out, you’ll figure out why you’re craving coffee, and you can come up with a plan to satisfy that craving through a different routine.
For example, if you just like something hot to sip, perhaps you could change the habit to drinking tea. If it is hunger, then planning ahead and having a healthy snack at the appropriate time will prevent this hunger-driven coffee consumption. If it’s truly the caffeine addiction, you could slowly wean yourself off of it, or switch to something else that provides a similar boost.
On the other hand, you could just keep drinking coffee because it’s delicious and not all that bad for you!
When you break it down like this, you realize that it’s possible to alter any habit and replace it with a better one. If you can figure out the cue, routine, and reward, along with the craving that drives the loop, you can change a habit. You can transition to a healthier routine that is more in line with your goals.
When it comes down to it, I can’t tell you exactly how to start exercising if that has always been challenging for you. I can’t tell you how to change your diet or get more sleep or any other behavior that has kept you from reaching your health and fitness goals. But I can tell you that it’s possible.
No expert out there can tell you exactly how to change your unhealthy habits into healthy ones. But I can point you in the right direction.
Practicing awareness in your life is a great step to beginning habit change. If you can discover more about what drives your daily routines, you can discover how to change them to be more in tune with your goals.
Finally, having a group, partner, or coach to support you increases your chances of success. So if you really want to make a change in your life this year, reach out to someone who can help you.
Enjoy your journey in 2017! May it bring you closer to your goals as you become more aware of your habits and how you can gain control over them.
I hope this post has helped you learn more about how you can change your habits. If you found it helpful or you know someone who might be helped by these ideas please share it!
I’d also love to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment below!
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.
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