How to Make Healthy Exercise a Habit
A Greek philosopher once said that “the only constant is change”. This might be true for a lot of things in the modern world, but as humans, we are often creatures of habit. We generally wake up at the same time and follow similar routines each day. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense – habits help us go about our daily lives. Every single day we need to make hundreds of decisions from what to wear, to what to eat a breakfast. From what to wear to what to buy at the shops for dinner. And the list goes on…
With all these decisions to make on a daily basis, it can be quite taxing for our brains. One way our brains try to conserve this brainpower throughout the day is to make certain tasks habitual. When we are carrying out a task that is habitual we are not engaging in the task in the same way. Take making a cup of tea at home for example: We know where to find the kettle and tea bags, we probably have a rough idea of how long the tap should be turned on to fill the kettle and can give the fridge door the right level of nudging to ensure it closes properly. Next time you make a cup of tea watch how effortlessly it comes to you.
It is almost like we are on autopilot when making these decisions, which is great for conserving energy and freeing up space for our brains to think about things that might be of greater importance. You might be sitting down enjoying your tea before you even realised you made it! Unfortunately, sometimes this autopilot process can work against us – such as in the case of developing bad habits!
Instead of making cups of tea we might find ourselves reaching for the biscuit tin for a second or third time without much conscious thought. Or we might ignore that reminder to get our dose of exercise in for the day. Just as much as habits can work for us in conserving our decisional energy, bad habits can work against us and what we are trying to achieve with our health and diabetes management.
It can be really challenging to change something as ingrained as our behaviours or bad habits. Sometimes we succeed, but at other times we fail. Overriding our brains autopilot can be quite difficult. Read on for a look at some simple strategies to help change ingrained behaviours.
Changing our habits
There are many thoughts and theories on the best way to change behaviour. One of these theories is the “stages of change model”. This model breaks behaviour change down into a five-step process. In order to achieve behaviour change we need to progress through these stages and, depending on which stage you currently reside, your course of action will differ slightly in changing your behaviour. The goal is to recognise which stage you currently exist in and work on making appropriate changes to progress to the next stage. Ideally we would like to move through these stages in a linear fashion from one to the next; however in reality you may find yourself going forwards and backwards through the stages. This is quite normal.
Five stages of change
Let’s look at this in action using exercise as an example….
Pre-contemplation (not ready)
At this stage, people are generally unaware that their behaviour is problematic and that they need to make a change, or they simply don’t intend on making any changes in the near future. This stage is often called the denial stage, with people denying the negative effect their behaviour is having.
Tip If you are reading this article it is unlikely that you are at this stage. However, if you are it could prove useful to have a think about some of the benefits you might like to experience from undertaking some regular activity or exercise. Improvements in strength, movement, energy levels, sleep, mood and blood glucose control – you name it and exercise will most likely improve it. Why not try writing some of these down and being more mindful of these benefits when making decisions about physical activity in the future. Also, ask yourself what is important to you (eg a particular sport/hobby, travelling, staying healthy for kids/grandchildren) because without good health a lot of the things that we value become difficult to accomplish.
Contemplation (getting ready)
At this stage, we are typically intending to start a healthy behaviour within the next six months. Generally by this point, we are more aware of the pros and cons of our current behaviour. However, we still have doubts that the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term cost of changing a behaviour. This generally leads to us putting off taking further action and you will often wonder how other people manage it.
Tip If you are at this stage it is likely you will be more open to receiving information in making an informed decision about your health behaviour. This would be a great time to consult a health professional, specifically an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP), for further advice. Local practising AEP’s can be found at www.essa.org.au. You could also attend one of the many education programs provided Diabetes NSW and ACT which can be found at diabetesnsw.com.au/events.
If you are in this stage it means you are intending to take action within the next 30 days and may already be making small steps towards changing your behaviour. This is the time when you realise you have to do something. You will need to ask yourself some important questions like – “what am I going to do to achieve this change?” and also “what is going to stop me (i.e. barriers) from doing what I have planned?” Once you have identified ways to overcome the barriers the rest of the steps become easier.
Tip If you are at this stage you should let your support network, such as friends and family, know what it is you are trying to achieve. Continue to try and find out what strategies and resources are available to you to assist you in becoming more active. This could be looking into what local exercise services are available (Active and Healthy website) or thinking about ways you could be more active each day (click here for some tips and ideas). This will set strong foundations for making the change when you progress to the next step.
Action (making changes)
If you are in this stage, congratulations! This means you have made changes towards modifying your behaviour. It is really important that people in this stage learn techniques to help them maintain this behaviour and avoid relapse.
Tip Some ways of staying in the action phase and ensuring you are still progressing forwards with changing your behaviour include setting goals and tracking progress towards your goal. Activity trackers such as pedometers or phone applications can be useful here, otherwise using an activity log or calendar can work just as well. Set daily and weekly activity goals that you are confident in completing and sustaining. Ideally, your confidence rating should be seven or more out of 10. If it isn’t you may need to reevaluate your plan to make sure it is realistic and achievable.
People in this stage have changed their behaviour and sustained this change for more than six months. It is important to avoid personal and environmental temptations to revert back to old habits; try to continue to engage in healthy behaviours instead.
Tip Identify your personal barriers to staying active and have a plan in place for when obstacles might arise. Do you find time or energy levels are an issue? Could you perhaps exercise earlier in the day or incorporate smaller bouts throughout the day? Make sure you schedule rewards at various milestones for maintaining your active habits. If you have been doing the same kind of exercise day in and day out you may also feel like a hamster on a wheel, so mix it up to keep it interesting! This will also assist in achieving ongoing improvements in fitness and further changes to things such as weight and waist reductions.
Remember when it comes to exercise the first step will always be the most challenging. Our bodies are often resistant to change and it can be difficult to overturn that autopilot and modify a behaviour. Rather than trying to drastically change your behaviour why not think about making multiple small changes that are meaningful to you over time. You will be amazed at how that initial change will flow-on to additional changes as you progress.