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The Power of Habit

One of the most influential forces to shape many of our actions in life is the power of habit .   Habit is often overlooked (perhaps because of its simplicity) when we consider why we do or don't do certain things.   If a person were to ask: "Why do I come home from work and sit in front of the TV instead of going for a walk?" or "Why do I go to the refrigerator every time I'm bored?" it seems too easy to answer "Because I'm used to doing it" . But the reality is you do it because it has become a HABIT.

Your brain works by generating electrochemical impulses. These impulses , for example, make your muscles contract when your brain tells them to. Additionally, different nerve cells and parts of your brain communicate with one another through impulses. Every time you do something new , your brain generates a sequence of impulses, which travel through your nerve cells. The nerve cells through which those impulses travel are called a neural pathway.   With each new task, the brain creates a new neural pathway, and every time you perform that same action in that same way, your brain will use this same neural pathway. The more you perform this same exact action, the more comfortable your brain will be using that neural pathway, which means it becomes a comfortable habit for you.

This is a natural process that is not only involved in learning, but is also immensely helpful by saving you time and energy when performing "routine" tasks. For example, you most likely do the same things every day when you wake up without even thinking. You automatically go to the bathroom, get in the shower, get your coffee started, put on makeup, etc.   Fast, effortlessly and efficiently. Unfortunately, when it comes to harmful habits such as sitting in front of the TV when you arrive home from work, or opening the refrigerator if you are bored, this process can be detrimental.   The problem is you feel comfortable doing it because it is a habit with an established neural pathway and doing anything different will feel uncomfortable.

Do you want to try something interesting? The next time you brush your teeth, start brushing from the opposite side of what you usually do. If you usually start brushing from the left, this time start from the right or vice versa. Although it makes no difference whatsoever, you will be amazed by how awkward it will feel.   Why? Your brain has to use a different pathway and doesn't like it.

So how does all this apply to your health? Whether you realize it or not, you have developed habits in regards to health, fitness and nutrition. You either exercise or not, you have positive eating choices or not.   Now, if you are the type who goes to the gym or exercises at home only every now and then, you don't have the habit formed. A habit is something you do on a regular basis, and you don't need to muster the motivation for a couple of weeks before finally doing it. If you know how to eat well, but only do it once in a while, or if you eat right most of the day, but perhaps let things go at dinner, you also don't have the habit down. You are half way there, but still have a bad habit that must be fully modified.

The good news is you can use the power of habit to eradicate bad choices and create good ones.   Here are the steps:

1. Identify your current established habits in relation to health, fitness and nutrition.   This will clarify which ones (if any) need improvement.

2. Understand the power you have to change things.   No matter how long you have been doing what you have been doing and no matter how hard it seems to change - that same force that has kept you stuck is the same force that will help you succeed

3. Design the new habit to replace the old one. This is crucial step because you can't eliminate the old habit without putting something in its place. If you do that, you will be left with a void, and your brain will revert to the old habit to fill that void. Also, be sure to design and consciously create the new habit in a way that will be easy to implement. Here are a few thoughts to help you succeed:

a. Consider logistics.   If you live and work twenty miles away from the nearest gym, it is probably not a good idea to say you will go to the gym right after or before work. You would be better off planning to work out at home. On the other hand, if you work far from home but close to a gym, it would make sense to join the gym close to work. This way you can work out before or after work. As an added bonus, you avoid traffic. If you have the habit of eating unhealthy food, prepare healthy items in advance so you can easily access them at the end of a busy day.   Never let yourself get extremely hungry since you would be more likely to overeat or make unhealthy food choices when you feel deprived.

b. Whenever possible, link the new habit to a different, positive habit that already exists. For example, you may shower first thing in the morning. If you decided to work out at home, perhaps you wake up an extra half hour before taking a shower, do your workout and then hit the shower . (Of course, if you shower at a different time of day- you could try the same approach.)

c . Consider your personal preferences. If you have a hard time waking up and getting going in the morning - don't plan on waking up early to work out. Your good intentions won't matter because when that alarm clock goes of, staying in bed will sound much better than getting up and working out.

4. Start immediately and keep up the new pattern until it becomes a habit. Studies have shown that it takes 21 days for a neural pathway to solidify in your mind.   The new habit may feel awkward on the beginning. But you know why and you also know that it will subside with the new habit becoming more comfortable each time you do it.

These steps will work with any new habit you are trying to establish.   Having control over your habits is one of the most powerful things you can do to have a happy and successful life.   A word of caution, though: studies have shown that the old pathway established by the previous habit will never die. You must be careful not to relapse into the old habit.   It is very easy for your mind to slip back to the former pattern and you would find yourself again stuck with the old habit. For some reason, the next time it will be even more challenging to break it.   So once you have developed a good habit stick with it!   You have worked hard to create it and you deserve to keep it for life.

Eduardo Dias, For Health, For Fitness, For the Body You Want

If you want to read more on how to motivate yourself to stay focused on your goals, click here.