Monday 18 December 2017

Doctor's orders: The habits you want to get into... and out of

It is impossible to change all bad practices at once, but by picking just two we can train ourselves to make healthier choices

ACTIVE: Consider cycling to work or just get off at an earlier bus stop
ACTIVE: Consider cycling to work or just get off at an earlier bus stop
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

'NOTHING so needs reforming as other people's habits." So said Mark Twain and I'm inclined to agree with him.

Other people's habits, much like other people's children, are infuriating. But in truth, we are all a jumble of habits – some good, some bad, and they tend to make up how we spend our time and live our lives. Most of us can identify some of our worst habits, but continue with them nonetheless. And then there's other habits we aren't even aware of because they're so ingrained.

But adopting good habits is key if you ever want to make lasting, sustainable change to your life in any area, and most especially the area of weight loss and healthy eating. There are still people who are overweight, and who look longingly at thin friends and say: "Oh you're so lucky you can eat what you like." As if weight management is a journey that you take until you reach a destination weight and once there you can throw away all notion of healthy eating. It's not. Weight loss is a journey that never really ends, because even when you get to your target weight if you stop doing what you did to get there you will slip right back into old habits that caused you to put on the weight in the first place.

And I'm choosing the word habit particularly – because if you do want to stay a healthy, weight – then habitual healthy choices have got to be made.

It's nigh on impossible to change all bad habits at once (or perhaps I just have more bad habits than most people) so I suggest as a starting point – pick two. One relating to diet and one relating to activity. Adopt a new regime in something, in both of these areas – and stick to it.

For example; you might decide to cut out white bread and also to adopt a more active way of commuting to work, such as walking or cycling. Or if that's not realistic, then getting off the bus a stop early or parking further away could be your new plan. But the main thing is sticking to it.

That means if you're running late you run late – but you still walk. Or, if you're starving and there's only white bread in the house you have an apple and go out grocery shopping. That way your new routine becomes entrenched and unassailable. That way, it becomes a habit. That way, your brain learns that this is just how you do things now. And so it gives up suggesting breakfast rolls for elevenses and driving the car to the shop at the end of the street. That way you de-programme the bad habits and replace them with the new you – as you want to be.

Believe it or not, it only takes three weeks to break a habit, although it can take a little longer to establish a new one. And in the beginning you are always vulnerable to slipping back into your bad old ways – so prioritising your new plan coupled with rigidity is very important. Forming healthy habits – while tough at first, as you move out of your comfort zone – becomes immeasurably easier with time. And, in fact, that is the beauty of a habit – the mindless nature of it. You don't have to think about healthy choices, you just make them automatically. The more you resist temptation the less tempting it becomes. And if it's motivation that gets you started – it's habit that keeps you going.

Dr Ciara Kelly is a GP in Greystones, Co Wicklow

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