How to build healthy weight loss habits (and ditch the bad)
Transform your lifestyle for sustainable weight loss that sticks.
Losing weight is not just about following a temporary diet or restricting your lifestyle for quick fixes; it's about transforming your lifestyle for sustainable weight loss that sticks.
This is where the art of building and breaking habits comes into play. Habits are the building blocks of our daily lives, and they hold the key to achieving weight loss goals.
Whether you're looking to build healthy habits or get rid of unhealthy habits that no longer serve you, you’ll need practical strategies and tips to help you on the way.
With the help of Juniper registered dietitian and health coach, Leif Lagesen, we’ll delve deep into the psychology of habit formation, uncovering the science-backed techniques that will empower you to take control of your eating habits, reprogram your routines, and ultimately, help you lose weight for good.
Why do we form habits?
Without even thinking, we make around 35,000 decisions every single day. If you had to consciously think about each and every one of those decisions, you would be exhausted.
Habits act as a kind of automation (or 'autopilot') and are a natural process that helps with energy preservation, as your brain doesn't have to consciously think about your behaviours and is therefore liberated to consider other things.
As motivation is a finite resource, building habits is important to create healthy routines that no longer rely on effort, because they have become repeated behaviours that you carry out without needing to think about it.
These kinds of unconscious decisions could include buckling yourself into your car seat without thinking, or minor adjustments like training yourself to drink water more frequently because you keep bottled water, not sugary soda, in the fridge.
How much of our behaviour is a habit?
Approximately 43% of our daily behaviours are performed out of habit . Once a habit is formed, it's resistant but possible to change because the repeated behavioural patterns become imprinted in our neural pathways.
The brain's ability to reorganise itself and create new neural connections allows us to modify or replace existing habits.
This means that even deeply ingrained habits can be reshaped with effort and strategies designed for habit change.
Understanding the habit loop
Understanding the three ingredients that make up the 'habit loop,' can make it easier to form good habits that you want to sustain, but also break bad habits that you're trying to get rid of.
It is a simple yet powerful model that works like a cycle and is key to helping us understand how habits are formed and maintained.
First is the cue. This is the trigger or signal that initiates a habit. It's everything that surrounds you when you undertake a behaviour: your environment, the time of day, your emotional or social situation, or any other recognisable prompt.
For example, imagine you stick to a healthy eating plan during the day, but have a habit of late-night snacking while watching TV, leading to consuming empty calories.
In this example, the cue could be turning on the television.
The routine is essentially the habit itself; the action that is triggered by the cue.
Continuing with the late-night snacking example, the routine would be grabbing a bag of chips and mindlessly munching on them while watching TV.
The reward is the benefit you gain from doing the habit. It is the reason behind deciding that the habit is worth repeating again and again in the future and reinforces the habit loop by making you feel good or fulfilled.
If the reward is positive, then the cycle forms a positive feedback loop that tells the brain that the next time the cue is encountered, you should complete the same routine to get your reward.
In our snacking example, the reward might be the pleasurable taste of the chips and the temporary distraction from stress or boredom.
How long does it take to form or break a habit?
The number varies, but the latest research suggests it takes between 18 and 254 days to build or break a habit, with the average being 66 days .
This range depends on a few key factors, which we'll go into below.
The first thing to consider is how habitual you are. If you're a more habitual person, it's likely that forming habits will take less time.
A habitual person tends to stick to established routines and ingrained behaviours with consistency, making it challenging to break habits when change is required due to a strong attachment to their comfort zone.
While this can be difficult when it comes to breaking a habit such as emotional eating, on the flip side, it can be easier to maintain habits. For example, you might be more likely to attend a strength training fitness class at the same time and day each week.
Complexity of the behaviour
The next is the complexity of behaviour that you are trying to change. It's important to note that this doesn't make it impossible to form a habit, it just means that it may require more deliberate effort, patience, and a structured approach.
If the habit you're trying to build is to drink an extra 2 glasses of water per day, it's likely that you'll form a habit around that quicker than if you're trying to do something more substantial, such as walking 10,000 steps a day.
This more significant walking goal can be done by breaking the behaviour down into smaller, manageable steps.
Building this habit could include setting a daily step goal on your smartphone, asking an accountability buddy to join you for a walk, and setting an alarm for the same time every day, to remind you to get out of the door and start moving.
These techniques can help simplify the complexity of the behaviour and make it more responsive to habit formation, ultimately leading to a healthier and more active lifestyle.
The stronger the reward is, the more likely you are to stick with the habit. There are 2 ways in which we categorise rewards.
This often involves doing an action in order to please someone else or for external validation. This could include going for a walk because your partner told you to do more exercise, or eating more fruit and vegetables because a doctor told you you must cut down on unhealthy foods to prevent further weight gain.
The external reward after completing the action is the feeling of pleasing someone else, rather than doing something for your own enjoyment.
While external rewards are an important motivator for healthy habit formation, the concept of doing it for someone else doesn't always lead to weight loss progress in the long run.
Internal or intrinsic reward
This can be defined as something that is meaningful to you, unlike completing a behaviour for someone else.
An intrinsic reward could be the taste of eating one of your favourite healthy foods or feeling energised because you moved your body for 30 minutes that day and your mental health felt great as a result.
When you choose to engage in a healthy habit because you want to, rather than feeling compelled by external factors, you have a greater sense of control over your actions.
This autonomy fosters a positive attitude toward the habit and makes it more likely to stick.
Healthy habits for weight loss
Implementation intentions are a powerful and practical strategy that brings all aspects of the habit loop together, making it easy for people to build new habits for a healthy lifestyle. These intentions involve setting a clear, specific plan ahead of time that outlines when, where, and how you will engage in regular exercise and healthy eating habits.
By specifying the exact circumstances under which you'll perform these actions, it readies your brain to automatically carry out the behaviour. Put simply, it takes loose goals and puts them into concrete steps that you can commit to long-term.
An implementation intention is a simple statement: 'When I ..., I will ...'
'When I,' refer to the cue and 'I will' refers to the routine.
Let's take the example of someone who is trying to drink more water because their love of drinks with added sugars is preventing them from losing weight.
Instead of a vague resolution to 'drink more water,' you would say 'When I get up to use the bathroom, I will drink a glass of water.'
If a habit that's trying to be formed is going for a 30-minute walk once a week to promote weight loss, your implementation intention could be, 'When I hear my alarm go off at 7am, I will go for a walk for 30 minutes and feel energised afterwards.'
If we're relating this back to the habit loop, the alarm going off is the cue, the walk is the routine, and feeling energised is the internal reward for completing the action.
If you repeat this action on an 18 to 254-day cycle period, it's likely that you'll form a habit.
This level of detail not only clarifies your objectives but also primes your brain to execute the behaviour, making it easier to stay on track and achieve weight loss goals.
Habits to avoid on a weight loss journey
Now that we've covered how to build healthy habits to lose weight, what about breaking the bad ones that are preventing you from long-term weight loss?
Breaking old habits is possible, with a few key strategies.
Change the cue
When people change jobs, move overseas, move house, or end or start a new relationship, it's very likely that habits will change because existing cues or triggers are no longer there.
The most powerful way to change or break a habit is actually to avoid the trigger or the cue.
Take, for example, a habit of stopping into your local convenience store for snacks that are high in saturated fats on your way home from work, and ultimately adding more calories to your daily intake than needed to lose weight.
Each time you pass the convenience store this represents the cue to go inside, because by this point, the habit has been formed.
To break this habit, change or avoid the cue by walking a different route home. This helps to take away the mental willpower that's required to refrain from engaging in these unhealthy eating habits, by avoiding the temptation altogether.
Change the action
When avoiding the cue is not possible, change the action. To use the above example, let's say that you cannot avoid the convenience store because every route has a store offering up this temptation.
Change the action by carrying healthy snacks specifically for your walk home, so each time you pass a convenience store, you can address those post-work hunger pangs with fewer calories and more nutrient-dense foods instead.
Why building habits doesn't have to be perfect
When you're trying to build a new habit, forget the notion that you need to be perfect. If you're trying to build a habit over a 66-day average, as referenced above, it's okay if you miss a few days during this time.
While you don't want to be missing weeks at a time, slipping up on habits for a day or 2 is completely fine and normal.
Building habits are not about short-term perfection; they are about creating lasting change over time.
What matters more than the setback is the overall improvement and consistency over time, so use each slip-up as a way to learn from mistakes and make adjustments to improve your habit-building strategy.
Normalise the setback and get back on track with your habit-building.
How to approach weight loss holistically
Remember that habit-building for weight loss is about overall health, not just numbers on a scale. Focus on developing sustainable habits that promote health and happiness, and be patient with yourself throughout the journey.
It's also a good idea to seek professional guidance when necessary to ensure you're making safe and effective choices for your unique needs and circumstances.
Here are some key things to consider when addressing weight loss through habit-building.
Goal setting and accountability
Having clear objectives will help you stay motivated and track your progress.
Members of Juniper's Weight Reset Program have access to our team of dietitians and health coaches, who can provide personalised guidance, assess your health, and help you create a safe and effective for your weight loss journey.
Sharing your goals with others can also provide encouragement and accountability, along with strategies to fall back on when you hit obstacles.
Focus on a balanced diet
Instead of looking for quick fixes with restrictive dieting, think about how to change eating habits for weight loss in a way that includes food such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats.
Juniper's hub of healthy recipes and nutrition guides in the Juniper app is a helpful tool for sticking to your nutrition goals with delicious meals that you actually enjoy.
Incorporate regular physical activity into your routine
Find activities you enjoy, whether it's walking, swimming, dancing, or yoga, so that building these physical habits becomes enjoyable, and not another thing to avoid.
Juniper's health coaches can help put a movement plan in place for people of all fitness levels and abilities who are looking to build regular habits around exercise, particularly involving cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility exercises for optimal results.
Consider a medical weight loss alternative
Weight loss medication can provide the necessary space and time to progress in their weight loss journey while also making healthy lifestyle changes.
While medication is an important part of Juniper's Weight Reset Program, it's only one part of the weight loss journey. And, while the medication aids weight loss, our health coaching team gives you the tools to make sure that it's sustainable for the long term, not another quick fix.
To see if Juniper's Weight Reset Program could be right for you, head to www.myjuniper.com to take the quiz.
For more information on habit building with Juniper dietitian and health coach Leif Lagesen, listen to his episode on the Juniper Digest podcast for a fascinating psychological dive.
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