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Building Better Eating and Exercising Habits for Weight Loss

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By Dr. Dawn M. Sweet

To build better habits for weight loss, start by identifying your current habits and set yourself up for success.

Habits are routinized behaviors we engage in each day, often without much thought. We get up at the same time, have breakfast, shower, and go off to work. Our habits are typically a mix of “good” habits, like brushing our teeth when we wake up and before bed, and “bad” habits — stopping for take-out food and watching TV after a fatiguing at work.

We know that our bad habits (in this case, take-out and channel surfing) is not necessarily going to help us achieve our weight loss goals, so we commit to making a healthy dinner and exercising every day, only to find ourselves reverting to our bad habits a week later. So, what can we do to foster healthy habits? Unfortunately, changing our habits is not as easy saying that we want to eat healthy and exercise every day. Here’s how to get started…

Identify Your Habits for Behavior Change

The first step in changing your habits is identifying them. What are your typical patterns of behavior? For example, when you watch TV, do you overeat, realizing that you’ve been eating the entire time you’ve been watching your favorite show? After a long and tiring day at work do you stop for take-out on the way home even though you know that you have healthy food options at home? Do you spend your evenings scrolling through seemingly endless TV streaming options instead of going for a walk or doing something active?

Tip: Carry a small notebook with you or use your phone to record behaviors you’d like to change (e.g., stopping for take-out instead of cooking). What is the cue, or trigger, that prompted you to opt for take-out instead of cooking a healthy meal? The cue or trigger is the event that initiates the behavior. Take note of the trigger that elicited your behavior. Pay attention to what is behind your take-out habit.

Once we become aware of our triggers and patterns, we can set ourselves up for success by creating a plan to disrupt our routines.

Set Yourself Up for Success

Now that you are aware of the triggers for habitual behaviors, create a plan that has realistic and specific goals. Here are some strategies for building sustainable healthy habits:

Make environmental changes

  • If you want to exercise before work, put your exercise clothes on your nightstand so all you need to do is put them on when you wake up. You can also sleep in your (clean) exercise clothes to make it easier to get up and get going.
  • If a long and frustrating day at work is your trigger for take-out, try taking a different route home so you avoid your go-to take-out restaurant. Disrupt the pattern of stopping for take-out.
  • If you are into yoga, unroll your yoga mat before bed and put it somewhere where you’ll see it.
  • Instead of having candy or unhealthy snacks easily accessible, put them in a high cabinet out of sight; put some apples and bananas in a bowl so they are easily accessible.
  • Instead of looking for a parking spot that is close to the building, select a parking spot a little farther away.
  • If you are able, take the stairs instead of the elevator. If your office is on an upper floor, take the stairs for part of the way up until you can make it all the way to your floor.
  • If you can’t resist chips, avoid that aisle at the grocery store, or do curbside pick-up.

Make your habits work for you by looking for places in your current routine to incorporate new behaviors

  • After you brush your teeth in the morning do some squats, sit ups, pushups, or jumping jacks. Brushing your teeth is now your cue/trigger for moving. Build movement into your daily routines.
  • After you finish breakfast, go for a walk; breakfast cues walking.
  • Pack your lunch for the next day in between finishing dinner and cleaning up.
  • Set an alert in your phone at the time you leave the office to remind yourself that you have leftovers from last night’s healthy dinner waiting for you.
  • When you cook dinner, swap out white rice for brown rice, quinoa or another whole grain.

Reward yourself

  • Changing our habits isn’t always easy, so celebrate your victories. Did you skip take-out for an entire week? If so, invite some friends to join you for a bike ride or a walk. Time with your friends is your reward!

Building new habits is not impossible, but it does take time and effort. Also, check out our blog on temptation bundling and how that might help. You’re worth it.

About the Author: Dr. Dawn M. Sweet has over 20 years of experience in the field of communication. Dr. Sweet has given several invited talks to and workshops for academic and private sector audiences on the role of nonverbal and verbal communication in achieving positive outcomes and mitigating bias. Her research has been published in several top ranked peer-review journals, and it has been featured on NPR’s River to River / All Things Considered, Buzzfeed, and Science Daily. Her research has also been used to inform expert testimony.

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