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No willpower? Four tips for replacing bad habits with good ones

By Mustafa Nazary UR Blogger on 07/21/2013
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The secret to losing weight and/or getting in shape is sheer willpower, right? Wrong.

The secret “x” factor that enables you to achieve any wellness goal – whether it be a healthy diet, regular exercise or quitting smoking – isn’t sheer mind over matter, which most of us aren’t capable of maintaining. Rather, it’s replacing bad habits with good ones.

Researchers have found that due to the thousands of decisions that must be made daily, our brains strive to “automate” as many of them as possible. In other words, we form habits – “pre-programmed” behaviors in response to a trigger or cue, such as eating when bored or zoning out in front of the TV after a stressful day at work.Typically, habits are associated with some kind of reward, such as the relief from monotony offered by “snack breaks.” Simultaneously, a bit of dopamine is released in our brain, creating a feeling of pleasure. It’s estimated that routine will win out over willpower 99% of the time.So what does all this mean if you want to lose weight or get in shape? It’s not about willpower, it’s about understanding how to replace bad habits with healthy ones. In order to “stick,” the new behavior you’re trying to “automate” must deliver a meaningful reward. A promise of a benefit sometime down the road – such as being able to wear sexier clothes, or lowering your blood pressure – is often insufficient. To sustain the behavior until it becomes “automatic” (about four weeks to two months for most people), the reward must be immediate and tangible.

So here’s the million-dollar question: How do you change your habits?

  • Find a buddy – real or “digital.”You’ve heard the phrase “it takes a village.” Well, praise in return for progress – even if it’s just sticking to a new regimen, before you see results -- is a great reward, at least it was for me. One of the major attractions of Ultimate Results is the “family” you join. Both my assigned trainer and the owner monitored my progress each time I came in; when I failed initially to track my eating, they noticed. But when I finally engaged and began showing small but steady progress, they celebrated with me.The UR team also introduced me to a smart-phone app called “My Fitness Pal,” into which I entered every bite I ate, along with the calories burned during exercise (more on that later; it’s not as much work as you think and is critical to changing your consciousness and your lifestyle). Every day that I came in under my daily calorie limit, I received an immediate digital “pat on the back,” along with an estimate of how long it would take to reach my ultimate goal. (You can also, by the way, invite a friend to connect with you on My Fitness Pal, allowing him or her to see – and comment – on your progress, or lack of it.)The two together are what I needed to tide me over until the inches began coming off – a reward that was so reinforcing it was like a natural “high.” By time I had dropped to my goal weight, new, healthier habits were firmly entrenched.
  • Choose healthy foods you actually enjoy eating and physical activities you like doing, then figure out how to make these as convenient and accessible as possible.Trying to force behaviors that go too much against your grain just isn’t sustainable. If you hate running, for instance, don’t try to make yourself do it! In my case, I discovered that spinning is the form of cardiovascular exercise I most enjoy. So that’s what I do on the days I’m not being “supervised” by my Ultimate Results trainer. (Likewise, I appreciate that my trainer is willing to avoid certain exercises that I detest. The best workout, after all, is the one you will stick with.)Plan ahead to make the change in lifestyle easy on your brain.The beauty of personal training is that it imposes a schedule; your brain doesn’t have to make a choice. Plan your meals in advance too, so you won’t face that moment of indecision in which old routines can so easily trump willpower.
  • Don’t try to change too many habits at once.Work on just two or three habits at a time, and build from there. Start with personal training for instance, and once that’s part of your weekly routine, add in cardiovascular workouts.
And the ultimate reward? Eventually, new habits do indeed form and you’ll no longer have to work at it. In fact, you’ll feel out of sorts when you can’t work out or eat healthy. Take it from me; stick with the program, and you’ll get there!

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