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is it easy to create a long-term, healthy lifestyle habit?

WOW! What a year 2020 was - January 2020 arrived and you thought, yup that's it, I'm definitely going to start that health & fitness lifestyle change I made as one of my NY resolutions. So there you are, raring to go, you started really well, started to create a new habit, congratulated yourself - then 'Boom!', COVID-19 decided to raise its ugly head. For almost 12-months restrictions for exercise have been put in place across the world and the phrase, 'its' hip to be square' took a new meaning in the sense you generally have no choice but to sit in front of your square (ish) computer screen working and 'socialising'. Exercising at home for some people became (and in some cases still is), the 'new norm' by following the antics of online Personal Trainers, but again - in front of a screen rather than on a literal face-face basis.

Over the last year, Health & Fitness operators have become increasingly frustrated with governmental 'U-Turns' in being able to open clubs one minute, then having to close as rapidly as they opened. Medical fraternities across the world have outwardly said how important the sector is in not just keeping the population physically healthy (exercise assists the body in creating and sustaining a healthy immune system), but also for a person's mental health. So what happens now to the lifestyle change habit you adopted and worked so hard for at the beginning of 2020? I imagine the frustrations of the governmental restrictions are taking their toll (they are for me and I'm out working every day!) and by now different habits have been created, and for most people - these have now become the 'norm'. However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel as the majority of countries are in the midst of COVID-19 vaccinations.

In the general sense, our habits shape who we are, and the more often you perform an action (or behave in a particular way) the more it gets 'wired' into your brain - the process of the brain's ability to adapt and change is called Neuroplasticity. So how does this 'wiring' (or in the cases of old habits - rewiring) work? When you start trying to adopt a new habit or behaviour you enlist the prefrontal cortex (the 'thinking' brain, functions of which include focusing your attention and decision-making processes) and insert conscious effort, intention, and thought into the process. After performing your new routine enough times for connections to be made and reinforced in your brain, the new behaviour will need less effort as it becomes your 'default' pattern.

So is it easy for you to develop a new habit? Well......I'm sure you know people who have tried to give up smoking on numerous occasions, but how long it can take for a new habit to 'form' really depends on the drive behind that person, circumstances, and their behaviour. A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology stated on average it takes around 66 days - in reality however it can take between 2 – 8 months to form a new behaviour in your life. So if this is the case (and remember it's also 'person' dependent) what can I do to get back to my pre, first wave Covid-19 lifestyle change habit? We know we are living in exceptional circumstances at the moment but that doesn't mean you cannot achieve your goals.

When I work with people who want to change their 'unhealthy' habits I work on the processes (how you do it) which lead to the required results (or as the famous Atomic Habits author James Clear would say - their systems). The rationale behind building habit-forming processes is to ensure the change isn’t just a short-term one - but processes which your mind recognises as a long-term change and with constant improvement.

There are various techniques that can help you build new and long-lasting habits, such as the 21/90 rule (where you commit to a personal or professional goal for 21 days). The theory behind this is that once you've successfully created the habit in your mind - it should be easier to continue doing this for the next 90 days. Another one is 'Habit Reflection' (where you use lessons of your past in the present), visualisation techniques (self-explanatory), and various scientific ones. Generally, you have to find the best technique which works for you and a technique that you feel committed to and comfortable doing. Keep in your mind (literally) that your brain forms neuronal links established on what you repeatedly do in life - both good and bad. So focusing on the good, habit-forming processes will stimulate neuronal patterns which will become strengthened in your brain.

So why not simply try the following:

  • Identify an unproductive habit that you would like to change. What is one change that would make your life more satisfying and one that you know you can successfully do?

  • Consider the impact of this habit on your life to date. How has this habit assisted you? How has this habit impaired you?

  • Make a personal commitment to change this behaviour and consider what the risks of not changing the habit are?

  • Now that you have acknowledged the habit, create your ‘if-then’ action plan. What will you do the next time that you are prompted to use the habit? What will this new habit feel like one month from now? It’s always good to write down your responses so you can reflect on what has worked for you.

You need health & fitness to become a long-term, lifestyle habit. It isn’t something that you can start and finish – just like breathing, what would happen if you stopped doing it? Investing time in your health & fitness isn’t something that you should switch on and off, it is a 'lifestyle'. Let’s face it, without a good health & fitness level you become and look ‘older’ sooner, rather than later, and I haven’t met anyone yet in my worldwide travels that would prefer this to happen!

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