How to break the habits of a lifetime

Broken bar of chocolate

It’s never too late to change your habits for the better. Sarah Brealey explains how to do it.

Many of us have a habit or two that we’d like to change. The good news is that it’s never too late to do things differently.

Research shows that making healthy changes even in later life still brings benefits. If you’re doing no exercise at the moment, becoming moderately active can be what makes the biggest difference to your health. Changing habits isn’t always easy, but going about it the right way can really help your chances of success.

Understand your habits

A habit is usually an automatic behaviour rather than a choice that we have thought through

First, think about your behaviour and what you’d like to adjust. Bas Verplanken, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Bath, says: “Habits are something we do frequently – and that makes them important in terms of health. Eating junk food occasionally is not a problem, but doing it regularly is.

“A habit is usually an automatic behaviour rather than a choice that we have thought through – grabbing a chocolate bar without thinking about it, for example. There may also be a lack of control, and this particularly applies when there is an element of addiction, such as with smoking.”

Because habits are something we may do without fully thinking about it, it’s helpful to start by thinking about when and how they happen, and what triggers them. For example, you may automatically have a couple of biscuits with your morning cup of tea, or open a bottle of wine to have with your dinner.

Keeping a diary of your habits can offer insight into them. A weekly activity diary is good if you’re trying to increase the amount you do – you can also use it to chart your progress. If you want to change your eating habits, keep a food diary of everything you eat for a week.

Our Senior Dietitian, Victoria Taylor, says: “Once you get a true view of when and why you eat unhealthily, you can think how you’ll deal with challenging situations, such as eating out with friends or being short of time to prepare meals.

Once you get a true view of when and why you eat unhealthily, you can think how you’ll deal with challenging situations

For instance, if you’re eating out, you could check out menus in advance to find the healthiest option and rehearse how you’ll respond if someone suggests some extra garlic bread or a creamy dessert that you don’t want to eat.”

It’s also useful to think about other reasons behind your behaviours. Often we make unhealthy choices for emotional reasons, to cheer ourselves up, or as a reward. If you recognise this, then you can look for other, healthier ways to achieve the same effect – such as listening to your favourite song or taking a walk to lift your spirits or treating yourself to a book or magazine instead.

Set specific goals

Once you’ve committed to making a change, make a detailed plan. Professor Verplanken says: “You need to plan exactly when and where to do what. We call these ‘implementation intentions’.

“Losing weight is an example. The way we put that into practice is the implementation intention – in other words, what precisely you need to do to achieve your goal.

“For instance, when you go shopping, you could look at the fat content of all the foods you buy and choose lower-fat alternatives. Or at mealtimes, resist going for seconds or try using a smaller plate.”

Or if your goal is to be more active, decide exactly what that means you’ll do and when you plan to do it – whether it’s walking to work every day or going jogging three times a week. Our physical activity specialist, Lisa Purcell, says: “Put the times you plan to be more active in your diary and put reminders where you’ll see them. It’s important to do something that you enjoy – it could be anything from aqua aerobics to dance, football or judo.”

Making changes isn’t always easy, but remember that you can do it. If your plans go wrong one day, don’t be disheartened or give up – just start again the next day.

Support from the BHF

We’re here to help you make healthy changes. Our free Heart Matters motivational emails offer support with healthy eating, stopping smoking, getting active or mental wellbeing. Sign up now (you may need to log in first).

Related publications

More useful information