How to adopt healthier behaviour

Health and Fitness
How long does a behavioural change campaign need to run before people go from awareness to actually adopting a new healthy behaviour?

The quick answer? Research (see below) suggests it takes between 18-254 days to make a new behaviour an ingrained habit, indicating there’s considerable variation from individual to individual.

Why does the process take so long? According to recent research, behavioural change involves physical changes in the brain. The problem is that behavioural change isn’t something that a person just suddenly chooses to adopt. You have to slowly learn a new habit. And this means that you have to ‘overwrite’ a new habit over the ingrained, existing habit. This takes time and repetition.

When planning the timeline of your behavioural change program, consider:

• The time your subject has been practicing the existing habit (for example, eating unhealthy food for 25 years versus 5 years).

•  The benefit of learning a new habit – e.g. trading fun weeknights at the pub with greasy food for disciplined nights at the gym and a salad.

•  The frequency of the practiced behaviour  i.e. If someone has woken up every day for 25 years and had a cigarette, then waking up and having an orange juice for 25 days is not enough to change that habit.

How can you make behavioural change stick?

If you want to establish a new behaviour, you have to ‘re-wire’ the neural network that enables the old behaviour pattern. This means even in the best case, the desired behaviour may have to be repeated and reinforced for many months.

A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2010 found some interesting results:

•  They looked at 96 subjects who each choose an eating, drinking, or activity behaviour to carry out daily (e.g. exercising after breakfast) for 12 weeks.

•  The time it took participants to perform the new behaviour, 95% of the time ranged from 18 to 254 days.

•  Apart from the considerable variation between individuals regarding how long it takes people to adopt new behaviours, research showed that change can be achieved if you persist.

Final tips for planning the length of behavioural change campaigns

1.  Don’t focus on the amount of time - focus on repeating a specific behaviour pattern over and over. With enough repetition, all the related brain cells eventually connect and the new behaviour becomes an ingrained pattern.

2.  A new habit feels awkward at first, but with enough repetition it will feel natural again.

3.  Maintenance, persistence and staying ‘in the moment’ and being aware of your behaviour is important, as it is easy to slip back into old habits.

4.  Consider the length of the existing habit – are you going up against a 3 year habit or something you’ve been doing for  30 years?

5.  ‘Budget’ on at least 3-6 months to make the new behaviour stick.

- Leechy

Reference: How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world 1. Phillippa Lally, 2. Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, 3. Henry W. W. Potts, 4. Jane, Wardle European Journal of Social Psychology 40:6, pp. 998-1009, October 2010

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