If you regularly put off exercise, always forget to floss or struggle with overeating, we have good news: health psychologists have figure out how we can retrain our brains, tricking ourselves into making healthier choices.
You've already put in a full day at work, ferried the kids to soccer, cooked dinner and made sure everyone is organized for tomorrow. Only then do you start thinking about getting in a workout. It's no wonder you decide to skip that run or Spinning class—for the third week straight. Sticking to healthy habits can be challenging, but are modern conveniences making it even harder? Michael Vallis, a registered psychologist, behaviour-change researcher and associate professor of family medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax, thinks so.
Researchers like Vallis believe that the human brain is no longer adapted to its environment. "We are programmed through evolution to survive," says Vallis. "This means approaching pleasure, avoiding pain and saving energy where we can. But our contemporary worlds are so different that these survival instincts backfire."
We evolved to crave sweet, fatty and salty foods because these nutrients were necessary but scarce when we were hunter-gatherers. In the modern era, we're surrounded by foods high in sugar, fat and salt, plus we live more sedentary lives. It's a losing combination that helps explain increasing rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases.
But, as it turns out, there's new research in the field of health psychology that suggests we may be able to curb seemingly hardwired behaviours, often with only slight modifications to the way we think. Here's how you can trick yourself into making healthier choices.
1. The bad habit: "I often put off exercise."
You're all set to go for a run, until a friend of a friend on Facebook boasts about her much-deserved night in with a glass of wine and Netflix. Come to think of it, you've had a hard day, too. Next thing you know, you've justified skipping a workout, and you feel OK about it. Why? It's the power of social influence on the mind: One person imbibing, smoking or overeating can cause others to follow suit. Researchers have long known this chain reaction occurs in person, and a 2015 study shows that it also occurs over the Internet. Given how much time we spend online, the health ramifications could be significant.
The fix: Choose more positive online influences.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that, if we choose to engage in online communities that are focused on the pursuit of health goals, we may be able to harness the web and social media to help us stick to good exercise habits. For example, seeing someone else's tweet about heading to the gym can inspire you to get in your own workout. In the study, the effect was immediate and long-lasting, according to Damon Centola, the lead researcher and an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Centola says simply knowing that perfect strangers are going to a yoga class motivated participants to get off the sofa. So find some virtual yea-sayers and make sure you read the feeds.
2. The bad habit: "I can't stick to my healthful eating goals."
You really want to achieve the goals you've set for yourself, you happily start planning a dietary revamp and, gung-ho, you embark—until it all fizzles out. That's because the factors that guide diet planning differ from those that guide actual diet behaviour, says Marc Kiviniemi, an associate professor of community health and health behaviour at the University of Buffalo. More specifically, his research shows that thoughts guide our planning process, but in the moment, the choice to eat ice cream or not isn't quite so logical.
The fix: Predict your feelings about food.
When planning your new eating strategy, give a lot of thought to how your feelings will factor in, says Kiviniemi. "Sit down in a quiet place and think about how you will actually feel about eating certain fruits and vegetables, for instance, and make selections in your plan based on those feelings." In other words, make sure your healthy eating plans are enjoyable. It seems intuitive, but it's not something a lot of us do, explains Kiviniemi.
3. The bad habit: "I let the little things stress me out."
Unwinding is important for your health because stress can trigger other unhealthy behaviours (think insomnia and overeating), as well as inflammation in the body, which, in turn, increases risk of other diseases. But if you get stressed just trying to figure out how to change the stressors in your life, it's time for a new outlook.
The fix: Tweak your perspective.
The answer may be as simple as changing the way you feel about stressful everyday events, like a bad meeting at work. This may sound difficult, but a few tricks—including questioning whether the event is a threat and what the consequences may be, and being proactive and taking action to alleviate the situation if it's within your control—can effectively help you become more resilient to stress, says Nancy Sin, a health psychologist at Pennsylvania State University. If you can't control the stressor, managing your emotions—by talking to supportive loved ones or taking part in stress-relieving activities—is key, adds Sin. Her research has found that people with positive emotional stress reactions (happiness, calmness, confidence or enthusiasm) tend to have lower inflammation than people with negative stress reactions (irritability, shame, anger, sadness or frustration).
4. The bad habit: "I never remember to floss."
Most of us probably don't mind flossing—it's not as strenuous as doing 30 minutes of exercise or as disappointing as refusing dessert. But if you didn't get into this healthy habit as a kid, it can be difficult to incorporate into your routine as an adult.
The fix: Use a memory trick.
A 2012 study out of the United Kingdom revealed how an "implementation intention," a sort of goal-setting strategy and memory booster, can lead to more flossing. Explicitly think about when you would be most likely to floss (like when you're brushing your teeth before bed), then use a cue within that event to signal action. For example, "After I brush my teeth at night, when I put down my toothbrush, I will floss." This trick works because you're integrating a new health behaviour into an existing routine, which beats trying to make more radical changes that might not be sustainable over time, explains researcher Benjamin Gardner. By the way, you can apply this strategy to any health change.
5. The bad habit: "I constantly nitpick my appearance."
Having a negative inner voice can impact your self-esteem, confidence and, ultimately, health behaviours. After all, if you'll always have a flabby stomach, why bother doing sit-ups?
The fix: Talk to yourself the way you'd talk to a friend about her looks.
A 2014 study on self-compassion found that, despite the barrage of pressures to be perfect, women who are highly self-compassionate "tend to think about their own imperfections in an accepting and patient way, without beating themselves up about them or dwelling on them," says lead researcher Allison Kelly, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Waterloo. So how can you learn from these self-loving women? "When you're feeling upset about your body, try to get into a compassionate mindset—one that you would take on with a friend—and respond to your own struggles as you would to her," says Kelly. Also try to think of ways you can be more accepting of your body. For instance, instead of struggling to fit into clothes that are too tight, buy a garment that makes you look and feel great.
6. The bad habit: "I continue eating, even after I'm stuffed."
We've all had moments when we've eaten more than we should. If you're an emotional overeater, however, it could be because you're allowing all the other times you've overindulged to trap you into making the same mistake. "Thinking about failures puts people in a negative mood, which makes them want to indulge in order to repair the bad mood," explains Hristina Nikolova, an assistant professor of marketing at Boston College.
The fix: Remind yourself of times when you had stellar self-control.
Nikolova published a study in 2015 that found not only is it easier to have self-control when remembering past successes, but the quicker you recall those successes, the more likely you are to exhibit that same behaviour. "When the recall of successes is easy, people believe they are really good at self-control, and they then act consistently with their good self-control by exhibiting restraint in the present," explains Nikolova. So make a list of two moments you're proud of and keep them on standby for any given moment that demands self-control.
7. The bad habit: "I slouch."
As long as poor posture doesn't give you back pain, what's the problem? Well, psychologists have proven there is a direct link between how tall and proud we stand and how relaxed and in control we are on the inside. It's called embodied cognition, and it indicates how at peace we are.
The fix: Fake it till you feel it.
Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., has conducted research indicating that body language influences hormones that boost confidence (testosterone) and reduce stress (cortisol), as well as emotions and behaviours. That means you may feel more in control when you remember to stand up straight and use open body language, like keeping your arms uncrossed. So set an alarm on your phone for periodic posture-check reminders.