If you listen to most fitness gurus or health practitioners, they’ll tell you that weight loss is “simple”.
Weight management is a basic equation – energy output must exceed energy consumed as food to achieve weight loss.
This is an incontrovertible fact that sounds so simple.
Yes, there are other factors that influence obesity such as genetics, pre-existing conditions and socio-economic factors.
But ultimately, your ability to be at a healthy weight comes down to energy balance.
So why do so many of us struggle with managing our weight if it’s as simple as calories in, calories out?
Well who knew it, but human behaviour is COMPLEX. Our behaviours are influenced by the views we formed in childhood, our unique perspective, self-esteem, motivation and readiness to change.
People who seem to have their weight under control with relative ease have spent years, consciously or unconsciously, building the habits and behaviours that support a healthy lifestyle.
In other words, their daily habits set them up to behave in such a way that their energy output is greater or equal to their energy input.
Often we’re tempted to start big when it comes to making behavioural changes. Motivation is often high at the beginning of a health resolution, and that can sustain us for a short amount of time when it comes to big changes like cutting out carbs or committing to daily HIIT workouts.
What happens when the motivational drive fizzles out after a few days, weeks or months?
What if old habits creep in without you even noticing?
What if the big change you made is not sustainable long term?
What if you are just swapping out previous unhealthy habits with newer unhealthy habits?
Establishing healthy daily habits is the key to effortlessly managing your weight
“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
― Samuel Johnson
Habits are impulsive. They don’t require intention and are initiated subconsciously, often triggered by external cues or stimuli. For example, coming home after a long day and reaching for a packet of chips because that’s what you always do, having a cookie or three with your afternoon cuppa or, munching snacks while watching television.
Less healthy habits are going to take some effort to disassemble. But when we break the habit cycle and replace with a new, more favourable behaviour in response to an external cue, soon the new habit will become effortless.
So, using our above example, a healthier response to arriving home after a long day might be immediately changing into comfy clothes and going for a five minute stroll with the dog.
Over time, this habit shift could make all the difference between gaining weight and slowly but sustainably shedding excess fat.
How can I erase a habit?
Technically you cannot completely delete a habit. Habits can stay dormant for a very long time but are never completely erased. However, the good news is that the brain can be rewired to respond to the stimuli or cues differently with practise and these key strategies:
1. Be self-aware and mindful
The first step to override a habit is becoming aware of your habits in a non-judgemental manner. Practise daily mindfulness to identify your own habits and the context cues that will trigger a habitual behaviour. The easiest way to do this is to keep a little diary of what you do each day and look for patterns.
Context cues are situational. They can be a specific location or time, presence of particular people, internal sensory sensations (tired, hungry, sleepy, irritable), external sensory sensations (feeling hot or cold) or internal cognitions (mood, low self-efficacy/self-esteem).
Here are some examples of some habitual behaviours:
- Orrder Uber Eats after a long stressful day
- Have a piece of chocolate after dinner
- Skip my daily walk if it’s later than 6:22pm
In these examples, the cues such as “long stressful day” and “time” lead to the behaviour of ‘‘skip walk”, “eat a piece of chocolate” or “order Uber Eats”.
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests writing down the cues and current habits to become aware of them. Remember – don’t be judgmental! Ascertain one habit at a time that you would like to change to achieve your weight loss goal.
Building a new habit is a process. It requires repetition, consistent exposure or removal of context cues and automaticity.
2. Find your motivation
A habit is repeated if there is a conscious motive to perform a behaviour or when a desired outcome is expected. Discover what motivates you. Important questions to ask yourself are:
- How important is it to achieve your weight loss goal?
- What influence will it have on you and your loved ones?
- How does performing or not performing this behaviour impact your future weight loss goal?
- What personal values are affected by the current behaviour?
3. Intention not emotion
Once you’ve determined the triggers and the behaviour they elicit, you can begin the work towards changing the habits or eliminating the triggers that cause impulse-driven responses. You’ll need self-control, rational decision making and action planning to build or change a new habit. Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, making a small change at a time is most important for behaviour change longevity.
In his book The Power of Habit, Duhigg writes that a habit has three parts: the cue, the reward and the routine.
Next time you feel the urge to demolish a large pizza or skip the afternoon walk ask yourself:
- What are you feeling?
- Who are you with?
- Where are you?
- What time is it?
- What did you just do?
Answers to these questions are the cues to your habit.
The rewards satisfy urges. Identify the kind of reward that you seek; is it nutritional, psycho-social, emotional or an impulse gratification?
Repetitive nature of the cue-reward for the habit loop forms the routine.
4. Break the unhealthy habit loop
Old habits compete for time, attention and location where new habits need to occur. Once you have identified the cue and the associated reward, insert a new routine. Here are some tips to break the loop and insert a new routine:
- Change or remove current cues. This may require changes in time, location or schedule of events including a change in social interaction patterns.
- Recognise the urges or cravings and pre-empt cognition, emotions and activities that can lead to emotional cues. For example, if you have a big workday, plan ahead for anything that may cause you to deviate from the action plan.
- Develop self-regulatory vigilance. Track your behaviour and have an implementation intention strategy in place. Print your implementation strategy and put it somewhere you can see it. For example: When (insert cue) I will (insert desired behaviour).
- Substitute current reward with a healthy alternative or insert a new behaviour that will lead to new healthy rewards.
- Reducing the amount and frequency of the reward is also an effective way to gradually break habit loops.
Get an accountability partner to watch your behaviour and inform you in case you deviate.
5. Build a new healthy habit loop
Constant cueing is required for behaviours to occur without the exhaustion of constant decision making. Use the environment to nudge you in the right direction by making the cue a big part of your environment. An example is to replace cookies on the counter with fresh fruit.
- Build current habits on existing habits. Identify current habits that you already do and construct new behaviour on top of it. Here are some examples: After I change out of my work clothes, I will pick up the dog lead. I will do a wall squat hold while I brush my teeth.
- Make the new habit attractive and easy to do like pairing an action that you need to do with an action you already enjoy doing.
- Keep track of your habit streak. It is rewarding and provides achievement gratification. Progress is motivating. If you have no way of noticing that you are moving forward it is easy to lose motivation. Tracking change can be as easy as a printed tick box chart.
Keystone habits have a ripple effect. Even a single small habit change may influence self-regulation of other unhealthy habits such as sedentary, nutritional and cognitive/emotional behaviour. Shape your healthy behaviour around your interests. Choose a keystone habit that is best for you and not because it is popular on social media.