3 Keys to Healthy Habits That Stick, According to New Study

“Old habits die hard,” or so the saying goes. The opposite may also be true: new habits (assuming they’re healthy ones) die easily. Whereas a weight problem or drinking issue may be hard to kick, a new fitness plan or sober lifestyle can be hard to sustain in a long-term way.

What, then, is the secret to a healthy habit that sticks? In one sense, the answer depends on the habit in question. For example, an effective fitness plan that lasts will require regular exercise that’s feasible with one’s schedule, while a sustainable sober lifestyle may require alcohol detox and treatment, involvement in a 12-step group, and a solid relapse prevention plan.

New Science of Positive Behavior Change That Lasts

It is also possible, though, to speak more generally about what are the keys to healthy habits that stick, thanks to the evolving science of positive behavior change. Now a new study has added to these findings, by tapping into the hard-won wisdom of 6000 people who lost over 50 pounds and kept the weight off for more than three years.

The February 2022 study at Cal Poly University wanted to know what helped these people keep the weight off. (Only one in five Americans who lose weight keep it off, the same study said.) To find out, the researchers asked open-ended questions about what motivated the survey participants to keep the weight off and what strategies and approaches helped them do so. Answers were then grouped by topic via machine learning, which revealed some interesting patterns and similarities.

How to Maintain a Habit That’s Good for You

Whether you’re trying to keep weight off, lower your sugar intake, quit smoking, or stop drinking, these three keys to healthy habits that stick may be of use, according to the findings:

  • Persevering despite slip-ups – Slip-ups happened, the respondents said, but instead of calling them “failures,” they saw them more as a temporary interruption in their journey. If they over-indulged one day, they would get back on track the next day. They didn’t allow themselves to get stuck in a rut after falling off the wagon. They just got back on the wagon and kept on going, one day at a time.
  • Regularly remembering what life was like before – Health and appearance were primary motivations for keeping weight off, and one of the ways to tap into these motivations was to consider what life had been like before losing weight. Frequently reminding oneself about what it was like to be fat and overweight—and the health problems and self-esteem issues that went along with it—was a powerful incentive to keep the weight off.
  • Remaining focused on one’s health in the present – The positive medical effects of losing weight, such as a reduction in pain and tiredness and an improvement in conditions like diabetes, remained important to people who were successful at controlling their weight. They also kept their focus on health and weight control when choosing what to eat, by opting for more expensive but healthier foods; and they continued to track daily caloric intake.

These keys to successful long-term weight control seem applicable to the long-term maintenance of virtually any healthy habit—recovery from drugs and alcohol included. Slip-ups can happen to anyone. The key is to get back on track immediately. One way to do that and stay on track is to recall what life was like before, especially the negative health issues that a bad habit once caused. Finally, continue to focus on your present wellbeing, by making choices that put your health first.

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