How Can I Form Healthy Habits That Actually Stick? A Holistic Doctor Answers

Emergency and Integrative Medicine Physician By Eudene Harry, M.D.
Emergency and Integrative Medicine Physician
Eudene Harry, M.D. is the Medical Director for Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center. She is board certified in both Emergency Medicine and Holistic Integrative Medicine with over 20 years of experience.
Older woman making a salad

This year has been one of the most challenging years in modern history, one that has taken a toll on our mental and physical health. To help you through it, we launched Experts On Call, a new series in which top-tier health and well-being experts answer your questions—however big or small—to help you find solutions, put together a game plan, and make each day a little bit easier. Don't forget, you can ask questions anytime, and we'll do our best to find the right expert to point you in the right direction. Without further ado, here's another edition of the series with a question from reader Kendall K.

Any tips for forming healthy habits? It’s hard to not revert to old unhealthy habits, especially with so much monotonous time at home!

Kendall K.

Before COVID, scheduled group fitness classes held us accountable for daily movement. Packed lunches helped us make thoughtful decisions about nutrition. Routine lunch breaks allotted time for daily meditations or walking breaks. 

Those healthy habits, among others, became ingrained in many people's daily routines. Adjusting to the loss of them, and finding the motivation to pick back up, can be hard. However, making and maintaining healthy habits can be attainable. Here are my tips for doing just that: 

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1. Decide what "healthy" means to you. 

The word healthy has a different meaning for everyone. One person's version may include tending to their garden every day, and another person's may be walking for 30 minutes daily. Basing your actions on another person's version of health rather than your own will likely lead to disappointment—and can even become dangerous. 

I've seen patients' bodies break down due to "healthy" habits, like overexercising, undereating, or eliminating nutritious foods groups from their diets. If you begin to notice obsessive behaviors or negative effects from setting a habit, it's no longer healthy. 

A genuinely healthy habit should consistently boost your mood, your energy levels, and your desire to be involved in your own life and other people's lives. There should be a level of joy attached—not a feeling of responsibility, dread, or anxiety. 

2. Find your purpose.

Similar to determining what healthy really means to you, it's also important to figure out exactly why you're establishing a new habit

Many times people will attempt to lose weight to fit into a certain dress, look a certain way in pictures, or hit a certain number on the scale. These are "immediate-reward" goals, and the moment any of them change (say the number shifts 3 pounds higher than you wanted), negative chatter enters the brain, and you can begin to lose motivation.  

Instead of setting immediate-reward goals, find long-term, sustainable inspiration. For example: I want to lose weight so I can have more time with my family. I want to be more energetic. I want to be able to run a marathon without my knees hurting. 

3. Start with small, simple habits. 

Forming habits doesn't have to be overwhelming. When we wake up and decide to overhaul our whole lives, though, it will be. Instead, start with small, simple habits. To help, I recommend setting both a time and a place to engage in those new habits consistently. 

Rather than committing to walking 6 miles every day, try this: After breakfast, I am going to take a five-minute walk around the neighborhood. When you start doing this consistently, you can increase the amount of time you spent walking, or keep it the same if it makes you feel good. 

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4. Try to focus on the "soft" things. 

Many of the habits we think about as healthy, like eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly, can be hard. When feeling unmotivated, try focusing on the "soft" things, like gratitude, helping others, and social connection

While these may not be what you initially had in mind for healthy goals, they have all been shown to improve mood and lead to longer, healthier lives. Once you feel healthier and happier in the presence of others, it may encourage you to be healthier in other aspects of your life, too. 

5. Be patient and show yourself compassion. 

Most people have heard that forming and cementing a habit takes 21 days, and when people don't end up achieving that, they can feel discouraged. Now, studies are beginning to see that it can take up to 10 weeks of repetitive behavior for a habit to stick—so be patient. 

Along with patience, you also need to maintain compassion for yourself. When developing a new habit, the chance of being successful the first time is rare. Think about it: When you first learned to walk, you stumbled plenty of times. 

If a new habit doesn't stick the first time, the second time, or even the third, try not to internalize those unsuccessful attempts. Failing in an action doesn't make you a failure as a person. 

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Bottom line.

Forming healthy habits starts with deciding what healthy means to you, then finding your purpose. Sticking to habits requires realistic expectations, consistency, patience, and compassion. At the end of the day, obsessing over something doesn't create a longer, healthier life; finding a balance does.  

Want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join our upcoming live office hours.

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