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Breaking bad: How to stop unhealthy habits

Christina Joseph By Christina Joseph

woman tying sneakers

Cory Metzler was in Paris, on the famous Champs-Élysées, when she walked her 1,000th mile. It was a goal that the Lake Worth, Florida, woman had set earlier that year upon realizing her health and her life were out of control. Unhappy at her job for years, she went home each night and mindlessly ate in front of the television. As she gained weight, she began avoiding social situations and routine doctors’ visits out of self-consciousness. Her occasional cigarette became a pack a day. When she finally stopped and took notice, she had gained 100 pounds and faced a daunting amount of spiritual and physical work.

Cory’s story has a happy ending: She got her life back on track, lost the weight and discovered a passion for yoga. But how many more happy years would she have had if she’d recognized her unhealthy patterns sooner?

It’s fine to enjoy a sweet treat now and then, or to skip the gym occasionally. In fact, experts believe that some flexibility is key to sustaining healthy routines without feeling deprived. But if that treat becomes a nightly ritual, or your gym bag is collecting dust, there might be problem. Here’s how to tell if you’re entering the danger zone ― and how to find your way out.

When does behavior become habit?

Demanding work deadlines used to lead me to the office candy drawer at 5 p.m. on a regular basis. After a while, even when I wasn’t on deadline or under stress, I’d still find myself heading for the candy. I had a sugar habit.

We make countless small decisions and perform just as many actions every day. About 40 percent of these behaviors are done out of habit, according to researchers at Duke University. Constant repetition causes a mental link between a situation and an action so that it becomes automatic. Your commute to work may be so ingrained, for instance, you barely remember how you got there.

Cory’s mindless eating in front of the TV is a common routine. Acting on autopilot makes it very difficult to catch yourself in the moment. Only later on, when the spell is broken, are you able to step back and inspect the damage. Although repetition creates a habit, that lack of conscious awareness is what makes unhealthy habits so hard to break.

How to recognize the “danger zone.”

I managed to near middle age without ever having a cavity. Then I received three fillings in one visit. I immediately took notice and pinpointed the culprit: my office candy binges. In Cory’s case, she went for a routine health screening and discovered her cholesterol was 224. “I had been very, very good at burying my head in the sand,” she admits. “I would torture myself reading wellness blogs while binging on empty calories. You could say my soul was craving a healthy lifestyle, but my mind and body had yet to follow through.”

Denial is common among people who have developed bad patterns. James Prochaska, PhD, an expert on changing unhealthy behavior, calls this the “pre-contemplation” stage. You may genuinely have no idea that you’re doing something harmful. More likely, you’re aware of the problem, but making a change feels overwhelming or pointless. “People underestimate the benefits of changing and overestimate the cons,” says Prochaska, who is a professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Rhode Island.

To identify your bad patterns, stay alert for clues. Are you spotting candy wrappers around the house or in the car? Have your sneakers been sitting in the same spot for months? Do you have less cash because you’ve been spending it on something unhealthy? If you can admit there’s an issue, you are halfway there.

Tap into what triggers the behavior.

Habits are often situational, meaning they’re tied to a particular location (for instance, your home), time (after work), other people (spouse or friend) or another action (watching TV). But experts say the strongest trigger is your emotional state. Are you angry, sad or stressed? Registered dietitian Katherine Smith is the Aetna health coach who worked with Cory. “Once you realize your reasons for doing the habit, you can assess your desire or motivation to change,” she says.

Once Cory acknowledged how work stress was impacting her routine, she started thinking about how she could better respond to those feelings. “I knew that if I got into my walking clothes before my coffee, I might be able to leave the house prior to wanting to smoke,” Cory says. “Then I let my endorphins slug it out with the smoking cravings.”

Read more tips on quitting from ex-smokers.

Make a commitment to change.

Committing to change is crucial. If you’re not ready, you won’t have the drive or persistence to overcome a stubborn habit over the long term. To find the motivation you need to make a real commitment, consider why you want to improve your health. Do you want to have more energy to have fun with your family? Or be able to hike 5 miles in preparation for a trip to a national park? Discover more tricks for achieving your health goals.

It’s also important to understand this may be a long-term commitment. Have patience as you try to break out of a negative pattern. “We do encourage people to take time, but it's more in terms of preparing themselves. So that when they're ready to take action, they're more confident,” says Prochaska.

He adds that it could take a month or more for you to develop a plan. If you commit to exercising, buy athletic shoes and clothes or research local gyms. Think about telling your friends and family so they can keep you accountable.

Cory made a commitment to walk a thousand miles over the course of a year. She calculated that 1,000 breaks down to three miles a day. “I would do one and a half miles in the morning and one and a half miles at lunch,” she says. To learn more about Cory's inspiring health journey, watch the video: Treating your body with kindness.

Now you’re ready to take action.

To break Cory’s habit of eating in front of the TV, Katherine encouraged her to change up her after-work routine and substitute healthier options for junk food when watching TV. “Eat meals at the table without distraction, and choose fruit, vegetables with hummus, or Greek yogurt,” Katherine says. Cory also used mobile apps to track food intake and activity, and to celebrate small victories. “Tracking became fun for me,” Cory says. “I would get little badges and notifications.”

Read more about how health coach Katherine Smith helps people like Cory develop healthier habits.

Peter Gollwitzer, PhD, a New York University psychology professor, recommends creating a new automatic habit with the If/then approach: "If X, then I’ll do Y." After my disappointing dental appointment, I created my own If/then plan to avoid raiding that candy drawer. If I got stressed out at deadline, then I got up and walked around the office to the kitchen to grab a piece of fruit. While I was up getting that fruit, I often took the stairs for an extra exercise boost and to clear my head before I got back to work ― a practice called habit stacking. And I made a plan to bring a healthy snack each day for the 5 p.m. hour.

No matter what your approach is, creating new routines is the secret to staying healthy. One positive action often leads to more. “Build on small accomplishments until they turn into a stream of positivity, then a river of confidence,” Cory says. “Just to show you how ingrained my new habits have become: It’s Friday, and I’m drinking a green juice at happy hour. Cheers!”

About the author

Christina Joseph is a veteran editor and writer from New Jersey who still loves to read the old-fashioned newspaper. She’s raising two fruit-and-veggie loving daughters to balance all the treats Grandma sends their way. Christina’s health goal is to resume her workout routine after being sidelined by injuries.