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How To: Make Healthy Choices into Healthy Habits

By Molly James
July 7, 2020
1 Comment

We all know “being healthy” is a good thing for many reasons; mainly because it means our minds and bodies are set up to function well and do their best work. Like we learn in Safety Care, it's far better to prevent something first (in this case, health issues and unwellness) than to have to manage them later. But if you’re anything like me, even with a solid understanding of why we should make healthy choices, that isn’t always enough for consistent follow-through. Sure, there are stretches of time when I’ve chosen grilled chicken over fried or started exercising consistently during the week but, when I think about what prompted these changes (the antecedent to my healthier behaviors, if you will) it’s almost always because I had felt unhealthy first.

For example: after seeing how many Christmas cookies I can eat in one week over the holidays, or during Northeastern winters when it’s cold, dark, and the only thing calling my name in the evenings is my couch. In response, I eat grilled chicken and go to the gym. Unfortunately, as my feeling of unhealth fades, so do my healthier choices. Then, I’m back to square one where I'm feeling unhealthy again. So, I found myself asking - how do we break this back and forth cycle? How do we replace it with attainable, long-term healthy habits? Well, I decided to use myself as a guinea pig to answer that very question.

Here's how it went:

Like any good experiment, I started with consulting research on the subject (because I’m by no means an expert!) and took a course led by Michael J. Cameron, Ph.D., BCBA-D called Fat and Skinner: Behavior Analysis for Weight Loss and Fitness. This course outlined characteristics of a quality program that targets how to actually keep these healthier eating and exercise habits outside of just the construct of “losing weight” because losing weight is not synonymous with being healthy. It set a great foundation for how Behavior Analysts can use our skills to target, elicit, and maintain these healthy behaviors. However, it doesn’t have to take a behavior analyst to accomplish the task!

Based on this research, I compiled an outline of what I felt were the key ingredients to an achievable program for the average busy adult who might not have the time, access, or the patience for a more extensive version. So far, I have been very happy with my personal outcome! Please keep in mind that my personal application (the information in the third column) is just one way to set up this plan and can easily be adapted and look very different considering individual needs at every step.

StepDescriptionMy personal application as an example
1Find your resource "buddy"Find a tool aimed to easily provide you accurate information and tools on healthy living to guide the habits and goals you choose that are right for you.I used a combination of MyFitnessPal (free app for phones and tablets) and a FitBit device (varying prices).
2Take your baselineAccount for things like your current typical daily caloric intake, types of food consumed and average duration of exercise/fitness.I used both of the above tools to easily track this for myself- MyFitnessPal is such an easy way to find almost any food product, log it, and automatically populate their nutrition facts and caloric intake for the day- it does it all for you! And I used the FitBit to track average activity time per day and caloric burn.
3Create a "health-minded" mission statementPinpoint why these changes are important to you, keeping in mind longevity and the fact that it's far better to prevent unhealth from occurring than have to manage it later.My mission statement: I want to sustain healthy living habits to promote my overall affect, increase my energy/endurance/strength level and improve my comfort level in my own skin in order to be the best version of myself for my loved ones, for my job responsibilities and for my community.
4Set your goalUsing the tools and resources discussed, set an achievable goal- and start small! Lasting change isn’t made overnight! It is always ok to add or increase goals later on.I took the information provided from tracking my eating and fitness habits and matched them with the average healthy adult in the same demographic as me. From that, I was able to see my biggest focus points were decreasing my sugar and sodium intake, increasing my healthy fat consumption, and exercising 3 times a week.
* See next page for explanation on goal choices
5Set up a way to self-monitor dailyIf we don’t track our new healthy choice goals every day, we’ll never know if we’re actually A) doing them effectively and B) actually creating positive change. So, set up a way to hold yourself accountable.The 2 apps I mentioned track all my input data for me which is great! You can do this easily without the use of an app too. For instance, on a weekly calendar, I could log my sugar, sodium, and healthy fat intake for the day to make sure it met the goal I have established. Then, I could make a checkmark next to the days of the week I chose to exercise on, making sure the checks totaled to 3 by the end of the week.
6Assess and analyzeAt the end of every week or 2 weeks, see how you did! What goals are you meeting? What goals aren't you meeting? What can you modify/change in order to meet unmet goals? Whether that’s changing a goal itself to something more attainable or changing the way you’re implementing your new healthy habits.I decided to assess at the end of each week in order to give my habits enough time to see actual change, but with timely opportunities to check-in and modify anything if needed, in the event no change/progress was being made.
7Plan ahead for relapseI can’t stress this step enough - no one is perfect! Give yourself grace. Expect and anticipate that you might not meet all of these goals every single day, 365 days a year, nor should that be the expectation. Everything is fine in moderation. Go on that vacation. Skip that third workout if you’re feeling out of it. Eat those holiday cookies! Just don’t make it a persistent occurrence by giving yourself a threshold. I decided to call Saturdays a “wash”! Meaning, I did not concern myself with staying within my goal-set numbers. However, I did set a cap. I wouldn’t go over a certain (generous) amount per reduction category (again mine were sugar and sodium that I was working to decrease consistently). The reason being, on the other end of moderation, if we totally throw caution to the wind, we might actually counteract all the habits we used during our entire week. I also planned for what I’d do if my Saturday wash turned into the whole weekend: I’d add an extra work-out to the next week.
8Repeat the process with a new goal or maintenanceOnce you’ve consistently incorporated these goals and have successfully made them habits, move on to another goal if desired! Check-in regularly to make sure your habits are being maintained over time.I set up a maintenance plan for my 4 goals after 3 months of consistent results/my own follow-through. Now, I check-in bimonthly to make sure my habits are drifting, and if they are, I plan to take that goal(s) back to weekly check-ins for another 3 month time period.

* I chose to make these 3 goals into habits for the following reasons:

  1. I have a killer sweet tooth. Other than bringing sweet, sweet joy from its taste, sugar has no real benefit for the health of your body and when eaten in excess, actually does the opposite. It's linked to fatigue, inflammation, and high blood pressure. My average baseline intake was close to 3x the recommended amount and I had zero clue- I thought it wasn’t anywhere near that much!
  2. I have a habit of putting hot sauce (and sauce in general) on absolutely everything. I again had NO idea how much sodium was in sauce! For me, I am directly impacted by sodium’s ability to store excess fluid in the body and found myself uncomfortably bloated and swollen 80% of the time. Now I know why... I’m keeping my average baseline intake to myself to save my own sanity.
  3. The health benefits of healthy fats are extensive and includes everything from lowering risks of heart disease and cholesterol levels to reducing inflammation (which clearly I needed after all that sugar and sodium!). I also needed a healthier alternative to the items I was eating that contained higher amounts of the latter and healthy fats fit that need for me.

Exercising, as I’m sure we all know, also has an extensive list of promoting overall quality of life both physically and mentally, so being active on a regular basis helps to support that.

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