Part of the reason why we create a new, month-long movement challenge, every year, is to help people develop lifestyle habits. Exercising regularly has been found to be beneficial, both physically and mentally, for people’s wellbeing. The key word here is “regularly ” – running once every 6 months versus twice a week will have different effects; the benefits of such activities, including to our mental health, largely materialise when made a habit.
We want to talk about habits, because they are foundational to a healthy lifestyle supporting good mental wellbeing. Habits are intended behaviours that we carry out unconsciously and with minimal effort.
Building healthy habits is beneficial, as they can make us more prone to making better lifestyle choices on a daily basis. Habits can also help us reach our goals – be it around exercising more or prioritising self-care.
For example, say we want to set a goal to make healthier food choices. If we develop a habit to turn to a fruit instead of a bag of chips every time we crave a snack, the behaviour will eventually stick and we will naturally be more inclined to eat a fruit whenever we snack.
Forming new habits
A contextual cue is something that reminds you of a desirable outcome of carrying out the behaviour. Contextual cues can remind us to carry out the behaviour for a positive outcome. As we continue to repeat this behaviour, it may become a habit.
For instance, when we see a pair of trainers on the floor (contextual cue), it reminds us to go for a run and break a sweat (intended behaviour), which improves mood and brain clarity (desirable outcome). As we repeat the same behaviour consistently, we might get into a routine of running. When this happens, we get into a routine without putting much thought into it, and with minimal extrinsic motivation needed.
Key factors to forming a habit
- There must be something to remind you. Building habits requires persistence and effort. Therefore having external reminders – be it a family member or friends, an alarm clock, or placing your trainers in obvious places, can be a great reminder for you to carry out the behaviour, especially during the early stages of building a habit.
- There is a reward. Reward yourself from time to time after performing the behaviour; this can motivate you to perform the behaviour again. It doesn’t have to be something tangible or deliberate – the beautiful scenery you see from taking a walk near the harbour can be rewarding in itself.
- It should be simple. It is harder to build a habit when the intended behaviour involves multiple steps, and conscious planning. Keep the intended behaviour as simple as possible, such as establishing a fixed time and location, to ensure minimal effort is needed to carry out the behaviour. Remember, it is okay (and actually better) to start small! Ensure the habits and goals you hope to integrate into your lifestyle are feasible, resource and time wise. Slowly build up your habits – jumping all in can backfire sometimes.
- Give the habit meaning. A reward itself is powerful, but for a habit to stick, it is useful to consider the deeper meaning as to why you are doing that behaviour. Does it improve your mood? Does it help make you more productive at work? Think beyond the obvious!
- Plan ahead! Schedule a fixed time and location to carry out the behaviour. For example, plan for a walk around the neighbourhood after dinner.
- Try out different ways to remind yourself. Some prefer an alarm, while others prefer changing phone wallpapers to remind themselves of things. It takes trial and error to identify the best way to remind yourself of carrying out the behaviour. Sometimes we might even need to switch things up to keep it fresh!
- Focus on building one habit at a time. Focus on one thing at a time to keep your routine simple and straightforward. It also gives yourself some time to adjust and get used to the changes you made.
- Repeat. Repeat. Repeat… until it sticks. Be patient and keep repeating the same behaviour, until it becomes habitual and performed without conscious thinking. Building habits take days. According to research, it takes an average of 66 days to automate a behaviour.
It’s your turn!
It’s your turn to try to build a habit! You can refer to our Heads Up information and tips booklet and think of healthy habits on your own, or choose from the list for different ideas, and write it down on the habit tracker. Come back to the tracker to fill in the block after you have completed it every day.
List of ideas:
- It’s time to stand. Stand up for at least an hour after each of your meals.
- Incorporate movement into your breaks during the day. Our bodies like to move, movement can help us feel refreshed and energised.
- Help to do chores. Not only can you help around the house a bit, but it is also a great way to fit in some movement in your day.
- Stretch out every morning. Stretch every morning when you leave your bed to help you prepare for a busy day.
- Head out for a walk before or after dinner. Walk a bit to clear your head, and get away from the hustle and work/school responsibilities.
- Dance to your favourite songs. Dance every time your favourite song is on.
- Anything but your phone! Put away your phone or any electronic devices and grab a book or write your journal before you sleep.
- Do breathing exercise before going to bed. Breathing exercise helps us to relax from a full day of tension and get better sleep. There are a lot of online videos that guide you through breathing exercises.
- Fill in a sleep diary. A sleep diary involves recording information about your sleep habits to help you understand your sleep problems and what is affecting it.
- Get ready for bed! Set a fixed time and get ready to sleep – dim your light, control the noise, make sure your room temperature is comfortable, and get comfy to help you sleep.
- Get ready for the day! Wake up at the same time every day helps to regulate your circadian rhythm (your inner clock) and help with your sleep.
- Stretch it out. Stretching a bit or going for a light walk before your sleep can help you fall asleep faster. Aim to finish exercise one hour before sleep to give your body enough time to wind down, and avoid intense exercise.
- Have a cup of chamomile tea. A cup of chamomile tea before your bedtime promotes sleep. It can also be a great way to act as a cue to remind yourself it’s time for bed!
- Eat breakfast. Eating breakfast helps to regulate your sugar levels.
- Turn and learn the nutrition label. While grocery shopping, turn the box and read the nutrition label. Avoid choosing food with too much sugar, sodium and saturated fat, and choose according to your nutrient needs under nutrition labels.
- Swap out sugary food and drinks. Instead of going for desserts and boba milk tea, switch it up and eat some fruits!
- Switch to decaf. Caffeine in tea and coffee can worsen anxiety symptoms, such as racing heartbeat and trembling. If you are experiencing similar feelings after your tea or coffee, try switching to decaf!
- Drink 8 cups of water. Water is very effective in detoxifying your body. Drinking enough water also helps you concentrate and think more clearly.
- Keep a colourful plate! Eating a variety of food means that you will get a good range of nutrients. Try to make sure you are eating five colours of fruit and vegetables every day!
- Replace preserved meat with fresh meat. Replace sausages and luncheon meat with fresh meat to reduce sodium intake.
- Use healthier fats like olive oil and avocado oil in your daily cooking.
- Eat your protein. Include at least one serving of protein in your meal, such as meat, tofu, mushroom, beans, broccoli or spinach.
But remember that eating healthy is all about balance. It is ok to indulge in treats and foods that we love (in moderation!).
Some habits can also interfere with our goals and health. For instance, if we are used to grabbing a bag of chips everytime we want to snack, it interferes with our goal to make healthier food choices, which makes it harder for us to attain our goals. Therefore, it is also important to be mindful of any existing habits that might interfere with our goals, and find ways to manage them.
How to break bad habits
- Identify the trigger. Identify the cues that prompt you to do it; cues can include feeling extra stressed with your workload or managing drama with a specific friend. Be mindful of the cues that trigger you to act on a specific habit, so you can find ways to break the connection between the cue and the unintended behaviour.
- Tell yourself don’t do it. As silly as it sounds, deliberately telling yourself not to carry out the behaviour can actually reduce your chance of doing it. By doing this, you are regaining control of your thoughts and making conscious decisions, instead of relying on habits.
- Have alternative choices readily available. For example, you can keep a book close to your bed, and put away your phone, to break the habit of scrolling through your phone before you sleep.
How to support others in building a habit?
Support from friends and family can be a great extrinsic motivation to keep going on. Here are some ways you can try to support others in building a habit:
- Build a healthy habit together. Behaviours from people around us can have a great impact on how we think and behave. Therefore, through building healthy habits together, you can hold each other accountable while bringing positive impact to each other’s daily life.
- Provide useful information and resources. Share some useful information that might help with their journey to build a habit can be very helpful, and also show that they have your support.
- Ask them how you can help. Don’t make assumptions on what they need, simply ask them how you can support them to understand what they really need from you.
- Check in on them. Talk to them about their habit – such as their progress and how they feel, which can motivate them to continue, and remind them of the reason why they started at first.
Move It for Mental Health!
About Move It
“Move It for Mental Health” is Mind HK‘s annual campaign to raise awareness of the benefits of exercise on our physical and mental health, through challenging the public to complete different exercise goals.
Learn more about the benefit of exercise here: www.moveithk.com/health-benefits
*This resources is supported by Laureus Sports For Good.