10 Science-backed Tips to Making a Health Behavior Change that Sticks

Forget crash diets and rash New Year’s resolutions. Make healthy lifestyle changes you can stick with, based on science.

Stop. Do yoga. Repeat. Image credit: Matt Madd, Flickr.com.

At LifeOmic, we are all about data. Scientific evidence drives everything we do — not just in helping clinicians make better treatment decisions for their patients, but in helping LIFE app users make healthy behavior and lifestyle choices that stick. That’s why, in our LIFE apps, we are focusing on features known to help people plan, enact, measure and maintain healthy behavior changes. From personalized education to social support, these features help health behavior changes stick.

How many of us have made a health-related New Year’s resolution, but only stuck with our resolution for the first few weeks of January, if we even got around to it? From losing weight, to exercising more, to eating less sugar, making a resolution to change is much easier than actually changing and sticking with the change long term.

Want to make a healthy behavior change that sticks? Follow the tips below, based in social science research and health behavior theory.

1. Focus on one behavior change goal at a time.

It’s difficult to make one long-term lifestyle or behavior change, much less multiple at a time. Changing a behavior, like quitting smoking, going to bed earlier or starting a new exercise program, is a multi-step process that requires deliberation, action and maintenance. You may be tempted to change multiple health-related behaviors at a time — like undertaking a daily meditation practice and sleeping at least 8 hours each night — but by trying to change too many things at once, you may get overwhelmed and fall quickly back into old habits and behaviors.

Trying to change too many of your behaviors at once, especially going “cold turkey” on bad health habits, can lead to fatigue and “cheating” at your goals. For example, if you try to quickly cut out many foods that you enjoy — for example, no more sugary treats at breakfast, no desert after dinner AND no afternoon coffee), you may be templated to “cheat” in one area if you’ve been doing well in another (I didn’t eat any sugar this morning, so I don’t mind drinking an extra cup of coffee this afternoon), leaving you feeling a sense of disappointment that you aren’t achieving everything you set out to achieve. Alternatively, giving into one temptation (eating that breakfast donut you said you weren’t going to eat) may lead you to think, “To heck with it, I’m just not going to worry about my sugar intake today.” By the end of the day, you may consume several more sweet treats. You’ll end up feeling stressed about failing at multiple of your behavior change goals, leading you to further “cheat” to make yourself feel better.

Focus on one small or attainable change at a time. Once you’ve made the change into a habit (like going to bed by a certain time every night), you can focus on your next goal.

2. Pick a behavior you have full control over.

In the Theory of Planned Behavior, predictors of health behavior, or at least of intention toward a behavior, include our attitudes toward the behavior, social norms (what people around us think about the behavior), and perceived behavioral control (what control we have or think we have over the behavior). When setting a new health goal, pick a behavior that you feel you have full control over.

Image credit: Robert Orzanna, Wikimedia.

For health reasons, you may want or need less stress in your life, but the occurrence of stressful events may not be under your control. You may not have control over a work environment that demands you spend multiple hours at a computer. You may feel like you don’t have control over whether friends, roommates or family members bring unhealthy foods into the house, or what a family member cooks you for breakfast when you didn’t ask, and social norms may compel you to not to “fuss” over these things.

But you can control how you react to stress, or when and how you eat the breakfast your family member prepared for you, for example. You could decide to begin a 10-minute mindfulness or meditation practice every morning when you wake up or before you go to bed, to blunt the negative impacts of stress on your body. You could decide to save the breakfast your family member cooked for you and eat it for lunch instead, giving yourself a potentially metabolically beneficial prolonged overnight fast, or decide to exercise early every morning in anticipation of having to sit in work meetings until lunch. You can also ask for friends, family members and work colleagues to honor your healthy behavior changes, by not enabling your problem behaviors or looking at you funny when you ask a coworker to walk with you for a one-on-one meeting.

3. Identify your motivation to adopt a particular healthy behavior. If the reason for change isn’t important enough to you to actually make the change, pick a different behavior. And be honest.

Our motivations are important predictors of our behaviors. Without a strong personal motivation backing up a the health behavior change we want to make, we may contemplate but never successfully make the change.

I’m doing yoga… Image credit: kattebelletje, Flickr.com.

Both Social Cognitive Theory and the Health Belief Model of behavior change incorporate factors related to motivation. In Social Cognitive Theory, a mix of personal and environmental factors influence our behavior, including our belief that we can change, the outcomes we anticipate if we do engage in the behavior, the knowledge and skills we have or need to have to engage in the behavior, and the rewards or punishments we run into along the way. In the Health Belief Model, our personal beliefs directly influence our health behaviors, including perceived benefits (“Exercising will reduce my risk of heart problems.”) and perceived barriers. Perceived benefits can be externally focused (“I’ll look better. My friends will approve.”) or internally focused (“I’ll feel better.”). While our personalities may dictate which perceived benefits are most motivating to us, internally focused benefits and goals are typically more powerful and longer-lived.

“I want to fit into cuter clothes.”
“I want to be able to enjoy outdoor activities like hiking without getting winded.”
“I want to be around to enjoy my kids and learn new things with them.”
Credit: Lauren Hanover, Wikimedia.

A strong motivation for health behavior change is ideally closely related to one or more of our core values. These values could range from being there for family, to being mentally sharp into old age. Before starting a new nutrition plan, exercise program, sleep schedule or intermittent fasting regimen, ask yourself why you want to engage in this particular health behavior, what you expect to gain, and what stands in your way. If you can’t find a strong internally focused motivation for doing it, or if you find that you can think of more things that stand in your way than things you expect to gain, it may be best to focus on a different health behavior goal for now.

4. Do the research.

In almost every theory of health behavior, knowledge is a key predictor, or at least a precursor, of change. As you are contemplating breaking an unhealthy habit or developing a new healthy one, learn as much as you can about it from credible sources (your doctor, peer-reviewed journals, governmental scientific sources, etc.) What are the demonstrated benefits or contraindications of this behavior for people like you?

Learning more about the specific benefits for you of a behavior generally understood as healthy, such as exercise and adequate sleep (7+ hours per night), can help motivate you further to adopt this behavior and stick with it over time.

I didn’t know refraining from eating within a 3–4 hour window of my bedtime could help me fall into deeper sleep! I’ve always struggled with insomnia. I can’t wait to see if this works for me.” — What you might say to yourself after learning about time-restricted feeding.

5. Give it time.

Research in the field of health behavior has established five stages of change. The first stage is pre-contemplation, in which you become aware of a problem behavior and seek out information related to its negative impacts and how you might change it, like stress management for example. Next, you’ll contemplate change and prepare to undertake the new health behavior. After contemplation, which might be prompted by a talk with your doctor or getting advice from a friend or family member, you’ll move into preparation, and finally into action. If you stick with it, the final phase is maintenance of your new behavior.

Meditation. Credit: Syed Shameel, Flickr.com

This process takes months, if not longer. So be patient and give yourself time! You may spend months contemplating a health behavior change and then preparing for the change before you finally take action — the trick is not to get stuck in a phase.

For example, you might hear from a friend about how a mindfulness intervention changed their life. You might then spend weeks to months reading more about mindfulness, deciding to make a change, learning how to do it, for example through a mindfulness-based stress reduction training course, downloading an app that reminds you to practice, and then finally getting down to actually practicing in your daily life. It’s important to be patient with yourself as you build up the critical motivation and skills for change, because change isn’t always easy.

6. Ask for help.

Credit: kellinahandbasket, Flickr.com.

Healthy behavior truly is a team sport. The Self-Efficacy Theory of health behavior proposed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s established that learning by watching others and receiving social encouragement are strong predictors of behavior. How we feel about a particular behavior and whether we think we can succeed at it are also important factors.

Asking for help can mean that we bring a particular health behavior more under our perceived control, which in turn helps us succeed long term. It’s much easier to go on a low-carb diet and stick to it if you let your family and friends know that you are on a low-carb diet, so they can stop bringing you cookies for holidays and consider your diet when cooking or collectively deciding on a restaurant venue. If you proudly and loudly share the fact that you regularly skip a meal on your 16:8 fasting schedule, or even share your fasting schedule with your friends and family via our LIFE app, you may be surprised at how often your family works around your schedule or your coworkers ask to meet you over coffee instead of lunch.

Asking for help or seeking support from family, friends and co-workers can make or break your new health behavior goal. It may be difficult to achieve the change on your own. Even the strong-willed among us will give up and eat the cookie the third, fifth or tenth time it’s offered to us.

7. Change the environment.

Trying to change a health-related behavior without changing your environment is a recipe for disappointment, especially when trying to kick a bad habit. It’s why one of the first things someone starting a ketogenic diet might do is rid their pantry of yummy, carb-loaded snacks.

Trying to kick your sugar habit? The last thing you need is that candy jar to be sitting out on your kitchen table, calling to you every time you pass by. Get rid of the candy — the kids don’t need it, either. Try filling your jar with almonds or vegetable chips instead!

Spill the candy jar. Credit: Marco Verch, Flickr.com.

Trying to exercise more, but live 30 miles from the closest gym? You might find an excuse most days to not travel that far for a work out. Invite a friend or neighbor to join you in creating a home gym or starting a neighborhood walking route.

Meditation. Credit: Syed Shameel, Flickr.com.

Trying to find motivation to practice yoga every evening? Create a positive environment for this behavior. Clear your living room of clutter and always have your yoga mat visible, not shut away in a closet when you aren’t using it. Buy some new yoga pants, an aromatherapy set and a Patreon subscription to a yoga tutorial series, if it helps you get on the mat!

Create an environment that promotes healthy behavior by removing as many physical, time, social and cost barriers as you can.

8. Find your tribe and join social health challenges.

Social media challenges promoting healthy or environmentally friendly behaviors are often successful for one big reason — they leverage the social components of behavior. The Social Ecological Model of behavior establishes personal relationships, community and societal level influences as key factors predicting healthy or unhealthy lifestyle choices.

If we are surrounded by people like us who engage in a particular health behavior, whether positive (exercise) or negative (smoking), it is much more likely that we also will engage in that behavior. This is especially true if the behavior is visible or made visible through social media posts, for example. If we live in a neighborhood full of people who regularly exercise, or if we often see pictures of our friends exercising online, we might be more likely to be physically active. Social and cultural norms are also important. In a society or culture where a surgery breakfast is the norm, it can be difficult for individuals to escape baked goods at early work meetings.

The typical high-carb breakfast on Flickr.. Credit: Jessica Spengler, Flickr.com.

But we can use these social factors to our advantage, by joining support groups, socially networked health apps or online communities of people who share our health behavior goals. Joining these groups, connecting with others who share your health goals, and publicly committing to health challenges within them (like the 30 days of yoga challenges that regularly pop up in Instagram yogi communities, or Jennifer Dages’ 30 day Intermittent Fasting Challenge in the Intermittent Fasting for Women Facebook group), will help motivate you to make your health behavior changes stick over time.

At LifeOmic, we know that social support, learning from others and normative messaging (messages related to what other people like us are doing to improve their health) can drive healthy behavior. That’s why we are building social networking into our LIFE apps, with a focus on motivational encouragement, rewarding interactions with friends, and goal setting.

9. Work toward small and attainable goals.

Self-Efficacy Theory explains our health behaviors in terms of what we think we can do. We don’t try what we think we can’t do, which includes overly ambitious goals that may not only feel unattainable, but also cause us to feel anxiety or even fear when we think about them.

You may know that you should sleep 8 hours per night to be at your best, have a predisposition to diabetes that demands a low-sugar diet, need to lose 100 pounds, or want to hike the Grand Canyon before you turn 50. But to someone who regularly has to stay up late after the kids go to bed to get work done, someone with a sweet tooth, someone who can’t easily exercise or someone who has never hiked a trial, these goals might at best seem to be “pie in the sky,” at worst they might cause stress and anxiety.

But what if you instead set a challenge of going to bed a minute earlier every night? Or decided to cut out just one of your sugary snacks per day, or put one less teaspoon of sugar in your coffee, gradually working down to cream only? What if you started your journey to Grand Canyon with a daily mile-long walk around the neighborhood? These goals are much less daunting, and in achieving them you will build up the confidence and positive past experiences needed to tackle larger goals and behavior changes. This is self-efficacy at its best.

10. Celebrate success.

This step is self-explanatory — don’t forget to stop and celebrate your small successes! Plan to reward yourself as you progressively hit the incremental goals you’ve set for yourself to attain healthy behavior change. Share your successes with others, too — call up a friend and share your good news.

Just try to avoid rewarding yourself by indulging in any “problem behavior” you are trying to change. For example, you may not want to reward yourself with cookies if you are trying to cut out sugar, or a late night of movies if you are trying to go to sleep earlier every night and making progress. Try rewarding yourself with something you enjoy that maintains the progress you’ve made so far. If you’ve successfully reached your goal this month of replacing a fourth of the processed foods you normally eat with fresh vegetables, reward yourself with that new outfit you’ve been eying, a movie night or a delicious healthy meal out with friends. Reward yourself while staying on the path to healthier living.


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