For most modern office workers, we know what healthy looks like, we just struggle to make the necessary changes to get there. There is a barrage of information available on health and fitness and we now have apps, tools and trackers to monitor our health and wellbeing. But with the NHS reporting that obesity has more than trebled in the past 30 years, it is evident that still so many of us struggle to make healthier choices.
We know refined sugar isn’t good for us and that we should eat more veg. We know about the deadly perils of smoking and drinking in excess. We also know we should be getting at least 150 minutes of exercise per week and that meditation could significantly reduce our stress levels. But why is it, with all that knowledge, we struggle to integrate these healthy habits into our lives?
Changing our habits is harder than you think. Even if you set out on Monday morning with a steely resolve to cut out coffee, by 3pm you could well have a skinny flat white in your hand, if that’s what you’re used to doing at that time.
Our brains like habits. We try and turn any action into a habit if we can, because it means the brain can be more efficient in other areas; think of it as a shortcut for our internal software. Once you do something several times, the brain will almost subconsciously continue to carry out that action at that specific time. It means we don’t have to think about every action we do, which would be laborious for the brain and it’s why we are able to carry out simple daily tasks without thinking too much about them, like brushing our teeth and travelling to work.
This may be familiar to you if you’ve found yourself eating a snack in front the TV without even thinking about it. You may get up, go to the cupboard, pick out a snack and consume it, without even giving any thought to what you’re doing. You may not have even consciously made the choice to do that but your brain has translated this action into a habit which makes it hard to break.
We never intend our unhealthy choices to become habits, instead always telling ourselves that it’s a one off, or we’ll stop at some point in the near future. But the truth is, unless we make a conscious effort to change our habits, we’re unlikely to kick that unhealthy vice.
If you have done any research at all into habits, you may have come across Charles Duhigg’s model on the cue, action and reward habit loop. Duhigg tells us that it is near impossible to eliminate a habit entirely. Instead we need to replace it with a healthier habit. There are tools and exercises to help you get here but it starts with consciously choosing a habit you want to change and then deciding what you will do instead when your brain starts to crave the unhealthy action (be that a sugary snack, a cigarette or a scroll through Facebook). If you can make a detailed plan on what you will do when this craving arises, this will help immensely.
We can also carry out exercises to improve our willpower and self-discapline, which helps with habit change so watch this space on an upcoming blog post about that.
It’s not that education on health isn’t important. Of course, we need to teach people about health and wellbeing; about effective stress management, nutrition and fitness, but we cannot rely on this being enough for them to make changes.
To improve our health, we need to learn to make lasting changes. Changing habits is difficult, but it is near on impossible without a proper plan to do this. So when thinking about the health of your employees, or your own health, take some time to assess your habits and how they could be ruling your behaviour.
Luminate offers wellbeing workshops and training programmes to companies across the UK.