Creating Long-term Habits: A Healthy Mindset

This post has been peer-reviewed by Dr Lynne Johnston (Registered Principal Clinical Psychologist, member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT), PhD in Exercise Science, Doctorate in Clinical Psychology). You can find out more about Lynne and her company ‘Halley Johnston Associates Limited’ here


It can be easy to fall into the ‘no pain no gain’ mindset; that feeling that we have to be strict or harsh with ourselves in order to create healthy habits. Ironically, this can often do more harm than good, as putting ourselves under unrealistic and unnecessary pressure can lead to comfort seeking behaviour to regulate our emotions, rather than encouraging positive habits.

So, here are some suggestions for creating a healthy mindset, which is such a crucial part of  promoting long term habits.

Speak Kindly to Yourself

Judging ourselves harshly can be tiring and counterproductive, especially when we fail to achieve self-imposed unrealistic standards. Instead, we should speak to ourselves with honesty and compassion, the same way that we would speak to a close friend. 

It is also important to congratulate ourselves, rather than automatically focusing on our less healthy choices. So focus on the positives and allow yourself to feel good for every healthy choice that you make; whether that be walking to work instead of getting the bus, or eating plenty of fruit and vegetables. 

Think About the Big Picture

Our diet and exercise habits are just a small part of who we are, so think about all the other parts of your life where you succeed; do you manage to take care of a family, work full time, volunteer or make time to see your friends (etc.)? And don’t forget about your past accomplishments as well; is there anything that you are proud to have achieved already? Thinking in this way promotes a positive sense of self-worth, which can help us to value the importance of taking care of ourselves, and can also make us feel more confident in ourselves when it comes to making and sustaining changes. For more tips for improving your self-esteem see here.

Avoid ‘Black and White Thinking’

Things are rarely this clear-cut or extreme, so it is important to keep things in perspective and avoid ‘all or nothing’ catastrophizing. For example, incorrectly thinking that you are unhealthy or lack any self control just because you had some cake at a birthday party. Recognising that there are many shades of grey between being ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ can make it easier to gradually step towards the healthier end of the spectrum (most of the time), rather than thinking that it is an all or nothing choice. 

A great way to stop these ‘black and white thoughts’ in their tracks is to reframe them to fit a more positive and realistic outlook.

Here are some examples of ways to reframe negative thoughts:  

Negative Thought Reframed Positive Thought
“I was lazy and took the bus to work today” “Even though I took the bus today, I’m glad that I managed to walk to work 3 days this week”
“I’ve been really bad, I ate chocolate today” “I really enjoyed that chocolate, no food I eat should make me feel guilty, and I also ate plenty of other healthy food today”
“I didn’t eat much fruit and vegetables yesterday” “I’m glad that I still had one portion of fruit and one portion of veg yesterday rather than none, and that I usually reach my five a day on other days”

 

Avoid Seeking Perfection

Feeling that we have to be perfect is a specific type of ‘black and white thinking’ which can really damage our self-esteem and therefore our long-term motivation. None of us are perfect 100% of the time, it is unrealistic, unattainable and inevitably leads to feelings of failure. Being realistic and kind to ourselves is a much more helpful approach for promoting long term healthy habits. As social media can have a big impact on our mood and self-esteem, some people find it can help to unfollow any social media celebrities who post frequently about their unrealistically perfect lives, bodies and meals.

Focus on ‘Wellness not Weight’

Rather than letting the scales have the final say, concentrating on your health rather than your weight can be a much more motivating and helpful approach. There are many more benefits to healthy eating and regular exercise than just losing weight; such as overall health, fitness, mental health and quality of life. When we shift the focus away from weight we can also find other motivating factors to reinforce our healthy habits such as: eating sustainably for the environment, exercising to destress, being able to participate in activities with friends and family, staying flexible etc. And ironically, when we stop obsessing over our weight and instead focus on wellness, this may lead to unintentional improved weight management as we start to take better care of ourselves overall. For more information on the body positive movement and ‘Wellness not Weight’ see here and here.

Ditch the ‘Diet’ Mentality

Dieting is usually associated with a more extreme short-term fix which often isn’t sustainable, so it is better to focus on realistic lifestyle changes rather than ‘a diet’. There is also no specific ‘best diet’ as it is very individual which habits and styles of eating suit different people; although there are some sensible guidelines when it comes to healthy eating (which I will discuss in my next blog post). Avoiding strict food rules and allowing flexibility is also an important part of having a healthy relationship with food, as it reduces the risk of becoming obsessed with healthy eating, which can lead to disordered eating in some cases. For more information on the non-diet approach see here and here.

Enjoy Yourself!

Allowing treats without feeling guilty is a key part of a healthy relationship with food. If we feel that something is ‘bad’ or ‘off limits’ we can often obsess over this, which is more likely to lead to binging compared to allowing ourselves treats in moderation. Enjoying food mindfully by focusing fully on what we are eating can result in increased enjoyment and we may also feel satisfaction from having smaller portions of food; especially if we tune into our hunger cues and stop eating when we are full (for more information on mindful eating see here, here and here). Finding healthy meals and types of exercise which you enjoy is also important so that these become activities that you seek out, rather than chores that you have to force yourself to do. For example, going for walks with friends or joining gym classes can be fun ways of exercise, and experimenting with different flavours and trying new types of food can (quite literally!) spice up healthy eating.

Focus on You 

Even when we have quite a good mindset ourselves, it can still be difficult when we feel judged or when somebody makes a negative comment about our lifestyle or appearance. Although other people’s expectations often come from a place of love or concern (and in some cases they may be valid), this can also be unhelpful. For example if we were feeling good about our overall healthy choices, a judgemental comment could damage our self-esteem and get in the way of our longer-term progress. So if this is something that you encounter it is important to externalise this, focus on your own realistic goals (as we will discuss in the third part of this series) and surround yourself with as much positivity as possible!

 

For more information on creating long-term habits check out:

Creating Long-term Habits: 10 Tips for Healthy Eating

 


Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist but have been lucky to have worked with and received behaviour change training from clinical psychologists. This post reflects my clinical and personal experience of promoting healthy habits, but as this is a very individual topic each point may not be relevant to everybody therefore this is intended to be viewed as suggestions rather than rules to follow. If you find it difficult making healthy changes by yourself you can speak to your GP about being referral to a dietitian or psychologist. If you are having problems with your mental health please speak to trusted friend or relative, your GP or trained councillor (see here for more information).

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