Everyone wants to improve their situation and live their best possible life. Despite best intentions, however, making changes to your lifestyle can be extremely difficult. Inertia is a very real thing, with emotional and lifestyle ruts often leading to bad habits and addictions that can seem impossible to break. This is especially true when it comes to health and fitness, where the best intentions often lead to guilt and disappointment. Developing healthy habits is the key, with realistic goals and gradual shifts creating real sustainable transformations.
Developing good habits is not a quick fix, in fact, it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a new habit. According to Dr. Maltz in his famous book Psycho-Cybernetics, patients who had been through a limb amputation or plastic surgery operation took an average of three weeks to adjust to their new look. According to Dr. Maltz, this time frame can be applied to pretty much anything: “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
As it turns out, however, this 21 day period is an absolute bare minimum. Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, conducted a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, where she concluded it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. Lally studied 96 people over a 12-week period while they attempted to set up new habits such as “drinking a bottle of water with lunch” and “running for 15 minutes before dinner.” While “missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process", regularity did lead to success over time.
When it comes to health and fitness, most people want to set up new eating and exercise habits in order to lose weight and promote a healthier lifestyle. Setting realistic goals is a good first step, with unrealistic objectives and timeframes likely to lead to failure, disappointment, and guilt. Lots of people are familiar with the cycle of failure and regret that accompanies fitness resolutions, with people often trying too hard and suffering defeat as a result. Instead, you're much more likely to succeed when you start small and set realistic goals.
While setting realistic goals is a necessary first step, finding a way to follow up on these objectives is just as important. Habits form one step at a time, and the regularity of these steps is much more important than their size. Everyone has to start somewhere, with even the smallest meal reduction plan or 5-10 minute fitness session providing a great start. By starting small, you're much more likely to get started, with most people able to squeeze in a 5 minute stretch or run between other daily activities.
It's also important to take it easy on yourself, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track as quickly as possible. No-one makes changes overnight, so listen to the science and give yourself a few months to find your feet. By embracing longer timelines, you're reminding yourself that forming new habits is a process and not an event. You can skip a few steps along the way without feeling guilty, with new habits about making small but regular changes over time. The key to developing new healthy habits is to find small spaces in your daily routine, set realistic goals, and treat the work as the reward.