Establishing healthy behaviors that stick

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

By Mayo Clinic staff

Many people make healthy resolutions or set goals with the best intentions, only to see them fall short or break down completely over time. It's common to read about research and medical studies that promote a healthy lifestyle's psychological and physical benefits. Living a healthy lifestyle can even help prevent cancer. So why do you still fall short of your intentions to make healthy diet and lifestyle changes?

A few common reasons people tend to give up on changes to behaviors include:

  • Perceived dislike of exercise
    Studies show that people overestimate how difficult it is to exercise. As a result, you may tend to give up before you even begin a new exercise program or training regimen.
  • Toxic eating environment
    Quick, cheap and tempting food options are a constant pressure from a multibillion-dollar marketing industry. These highly targeted psychological messages may leave you wondering if you're in charge of your eating behaviors or, instead, are being conditioned to choose convenience over more nutritious options.
  • Setting too many goals or creating an all-or-nothing plan
    People tend to change too many behaviors or routines at a time. Creating restrictive changes that lead to feelings of deprivation or lower mood can result in an "on or off" or "all or nothing" plan that can't be maintained.
  • Consistency is complicated
    Whether you choose a lifelong goal or a temporary objective, staying motivated requires complex planning and follow-through. Establishing healthy behaviors that stick requires a different mindset and recognition that putting effort toward something important promotes an improved mood and well-being.

Tips to stay motivated

If you want to make your habits permanent, you need to:

  • Alter your mindset and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs.
  • Anticipate lapses and recover quickly.
  • Remind yourself that you deserve to feel good and that your plan will get you there.
  • Start with one small change, celebrate success and add more changes over time.
  • Use positive self-talk such as "I'm an exerciser" and "I'm someone who eats healthy options," to embed identity shifts into your plan.

Your thoughts determine how you feel about yourself, which affects your behavior, mood, interactions with others and progress toward your goals. When you identify positive thoughts, make sure to practice them.

Consider using this path to help spur on your healthy behaviors:

  • Getting started:
    • Develop positive and realistic goals for yourself.
    • Find multiple ways to remind yourself of your goal.
    • Identify why you want to meet this goal.
    • List the behaviors you feel are unhealthy.
    • Select one of the identified behaviors that you would like to change.
  • Creating your plan of action:
    • Brainstorm ways to change this behavior and start small.
    • Devise a plan to promote this strategy.
    • Identify potential obstacles that could interfere with your goal.
    • Identify your options for support.
    • Set a date for when you want to achieve your goal.
  • Reaching your goal:
    • Counter destructive thoughts with more constructive ones.
    • Consider what you must do to maintain change when you complete your goal.
    • Don't expect perfection; anticipate imperfection.
    • Evaluate your successes when you reach your goal.
    • Note how you feel now that you have worked to meet your goal.
    • Select another goal and restart the process when you're ready.

Don't let a lapse keep you from your goal

A lapse is a slight error, slip or pause in progress most people face at some point during the journey. Relapse occurs when lapses string together and a person returns to their former behavior. Remember that a lapse is normal and doesn't always lead to a relapse. Anticipate that a setback can and will occur. Then, figure out which triggers led to the lapse.

Common triggers include:

  • A certain time of day.
  • A challenging life event.
  • Negative emotions, boredom or a shift from your initial intentions.
  • Particular foods and visual cues.
  • People who have an influence on your life.
  • Social events, celebrations or your customs.

Remember, the danger is not the slip but how you react to that lapse. — Lisa Hardesty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota.

Learn more

Learn more about healthy behaviors that can help prevent cancer by reading these articles:

A version of this article was originally published on the Mayo Clinic Health System blog.