How to Create Healthy Habits that Stick - Top Tips from a Psychologist - Food for the Brain

Four years ago I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Diet, vitamin supplementation, exercise, stress reduction and cognitive activity (also known as a brain-healthy lifestyle) have all been shown to significantly improve outcomes in MS – great news, right?! So why is it so hard to keep doing what is right?  As a clinical psychologist I’ve spent years working with people who are finding it difficult to make changes in their lives, despite knowing that ultimately there will be benefits. Below are some of things I have learned along the way and that have helped me navigate a new path towards a brain healthy lifestyle.

Have compassion for where you are at

Our health behaviours depend upon many factors, including what attitudes and ideas about health were laid down in our early life experience. I grew up in a low socioeconomic status inner-city household in the 1990s – I never owned a bike, never saw or heard of anyone “going for a run” and diet was only discussed as a thing you “went on” if you wanted to be thinner (usually before Christmas, so you could eat and drink with abandon during the festive season). Crucially, my family was time-poor, working long hours to make ends meet; active relaxation and ‘self-care’ was not on the agenda.

Unsurprisingly then, I have spent the majority of my adult life replicating what my early-life taught me – working hard, eating for convenience (rather than health) and neglecting balance. It’s easy to be judgemental and regretful about not having made smarter health choices in the past and label ourselves as lazy, reckless or not capable. However, research shows us that self-criticism reduces motivation and leaves us feeling worse, whereas showing ourselves compassion and understanding is much more likely to free us to make changes.  Whatever health and lifestyle choices you made so far, you were doing your best with the information and resources you had at the time.  If your inner voice is harsh and critical, remind them that you have done your best and will continue to do so – that’s all any of us can.

Expect changes to be challenging

Long term behaviour change is difficult to achieve and involves a series of small steps and crucially, ‘failures’. What sets apart people who successfully implement long term change is not an innate ability to stick perfectly to a plan, but the ability to pick oneself up and get back on track when the plan has not…gone to plan! Failing to stick to a healthy lifestyle plan does not mean you are “not capable”, “can’t do it” or “just not into a healthy lifestyle”- it simply means you are a human, not a robot. Try to see all setbacks as an opportunity to learn by asking yourself why it didn’t go to plan and what you can do differently to achieve your goal. 

Set good goals

Good goal setting is the bedrock of many psychological interventions and research shows that it works. My top tips for good goals are

1) Set positive goals about what you want more of (I want to learn one new health recipe) rather than what you want less of (I want to stop eating junk food)

2) Set achievable short term goals that will bring quick benefits, such as sticking to a good sleep routine and regular bedtime for a week – this will set you on the right path and increase your confidence that those longer term and less visible benefits are also achievable

3) Link your goals to your values – list all the reasons why your goals are important to you – including those beyond your own health. When I stopped eating dairy for health reasons I found it really helpful to learn about the ethical and environmental benefits of doing so – whilst these were not my primary motivations, they have become increasingly important to me and serve as further important reasons to stick to my plan. 

Find your support team

It is hard to make change and it can be hard for those around us – my family still object to vegan, oil free meals 4 years down the road. Finding positive reinforcement for the healthy lifestyle you want to adopt can help you stay committed in the face of doubt and objection (whether that be from people around you or inside your own head!). Instagram is a wonderful way to connect with inspiring people who just really LOVE living a healthy lifestyle, sharing tips/recipes/exercises/mindfulness practices/motivation, as are Facebook groups and internet forums. You may also find local groups, like beginners running clubs and yoga classes.

Set yourself up for success

Compassion, goals and encouragement aside – good old practical planning and problem solving will go a long way in facilitating behavioural change. Strategies that I have found useful include –

●  Planning ahead for the week what I will eat and when I will exercise

●  Batch cooking and freezing meals

●  Cooking simple meals on busy days

●  Using a slow cooker and an air fryer for ease and speed

●  Planning exercise for the time of the day when I have most energy

●  Setting reminders in my phone to take supplements

●  Setting a bedtime reminder in my phone for 30 minutes before I want to be in bed

●  Leaving my phone out of the bedroom and my book next to my bed (I read a chapter a night for cognitive stimulation and relaxation)

I hope these tips can help you incorporate changes you want to make!

With thanks to Dr Nicky Hartigan for this article. 

Dr Nicky is a Clinical Psychologist and Director at HelloSelf, and has recently joined Food for the Brain’s Board of Trustees.