Science

There’s nothing especially magic about living well: The steps we need to take are logical and pretty well-known. But that doesn’t mean a health overhaul comes easy. Too often, despite our best intentions, the pounds pile on. Muscles turn to Jell-O. Stress rules the roost, and sleep is a fitful exercise in tossing and turning and checking the smartphone at 3 a.m.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The difference between failure and success boils down to approach and mindset, to selecting the right habits to tweak and -- crucially -- using the latest science to kick out bad habits and forge better, long-lasting new ones.

Most important of all: This isn’t a temporary fix. It’s a new -- and far more rewarding -- way of living. Read on if you're ready to get started.

Exercise

Out of shape? You can probably blame bad habits. But it's never too late to build better ones

 (Peter and Maria Hoey / For The Times)
(Peter and Maria Hoey / For The Times)

Tomorrow is a new day, but you probably know a lot about it already: what you’ll have for breakfast, the route you’ll take to your office, which website you’ll visit first. None of us has the mental energy to think about everything we do, so we spend a lot of time on autopilot, following patterns over and over.

In short, life is habit-forming.

But some habits are healthier than others. If you’re looking to feel better, fitter and generally happier, you’ll likely have to uproot some old routines and set the stage for something new. It’s not as impossible as it sounds. With the right approach, you can create good habits that are just as effortless as bad ones, says Wendy Wood , a psychologist at USC.

Habits take practice. If you do something over and over — be it your morning coffee run, your evening Netflix ritual or your nightly refrigerator raids — the act can become automatic, and you keep doing it even if you no longer enjoy it.

“Habits are shortcuts to what worked in the past,” Wood says.

As Wood explains in the Annual Review of Psychology, habits are built through a loop of triggers, rewards and repetition. Each loop follows its own circuit in the brain. In other words, your brain is literally wired to fall into habits.

Pick something that you can picture yourself doing for the long term. Something that makes you feel proud.

Alison Phillips, exercise psychologist

One way to break the pattern is to avoid the triggers that set habits in motion, Wood says. If you still feel like you’re stuck, she recommends telling yourself: “Don’t do it.” It’s a message that brings mindfulness to a usually mindless activity.

You should also examine the “rewards” your habits give you — they may not be as rewarding as you assume. Does that nightly dessert really make you happy, or has it just become a thing you do? In his book “The Power of Habit ,” author Charles Duhigg recommends experimenting with new routines to see if there are other ways to feel rewarded.

You can then use the power of repetition to build new, healthier routines, says Alison Phillips , an exercise psychologist at Iowa State University in Ames. To forge an exercise habit, Phillips recommends doing an activity regularly for at least a month.

“If you repeat it enough, you can learn to like it,” she says.

But there does need to be at least some appeal from the start. “If you have to force yourself to do it, and if you’re never going to like it, it won’t become a habit,” she says. “Pick something that you can picture yourself doing for the long term. Something that makes you feel proud.”

Consistency is key. As Wood explains, people who try to get in shape by dabbling in lots of different activities generally don’t make a habit of working out. “People who successfully lose weight and keep it off tend to have an exercise routine where they are doing the same thing again and again,” she says.

To really get a handle on habits, Wood says you also need to pay attention to the triggers that set off automatic responses. For some, the mere sight of a drive-through can set off a chain reaction that ends with empty wrappers and regret.

But Wood adds that triggers can also be helpful. A bowl of fruit on the kitchen table can practically guarantee a healthy snacking habit. And if you exercise after work, simply shutting off your computer for the day can put you in a workout frame of mind.

Be aware: Bad habits can return, especially when you feel stressed, pressed for time or distracted. In such circumstances, it’s easy to fall back on old routines that don’t require thought or effort. But if you stay vigilant, Wood says, you can catch yourself and change your ways before you get stuck in old ruts.

In the end, living the way you want is the best habit of all.

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