Understanding Habits and Why They are Important to our Health

By Marie Feldman

Understanding Habits and Why They are Important to our Health

Behavior has a tremendous influence on our health. Even the most comprehensive lifestyle plan, including detailed diet and exercise instructions can still fail unless it includes a sound behavior modification component. One of the largest aspects of behavioral change centers on our own habits. If we can develop and focus on the right kind of habits, this gives us the power to turn our best intentions and knowledge about lifestyle (like diet and exercise) into reality. It is very helpful to learn more about habits, including the science behind them, to enable us to actually develop healthy positive habits for lasting lifestyle change.

What Exactly is a Habit?

William James, a famous Harvard psychologist and philosopher who, in the 1800’s led some of the earliest investigations into habits, revealed that daily lives of humans (and other living creatures) can actually be described as “bundles of habits”. Our everyday routines, from the time we get up in the morning until the evening when we go to sleep, are filled with countless actions and choices, almost half of which may actually be habits.  There is no one precise definition of habit, as it is often described differently by psychologists and neurologists. However, the most common definition seems to center around the following concept: habits are automatic behavioral responses to environmental cues or triggers.

How Do Our Habits Form?

The basal ganglia is the part that of the brain that plays a large role in habit development. It is thought to be responsible for our process of selecting the actions that leads to habit formation. Ann Graybiel, a PhD and professor who has focused a lot of her research in the area of habits and the basal ganglia, describes habit formation as the following sequence of events:   

  • First, we acquire a habit by experience(s) that leads to creation and organization of neuron connections in the brain
  • Second, our habit behavior is repeated over time so it can become fixed
  • Third, the habit is fully acquired and is able to performed automatically, without requiring our direct attention or focus.
  • Fourth, the habit becomes a sequence of actions that tends to occur in response to a particular situation or cue.

Once our habits are learned, repeated and acquired, they start to occur automatically. Tasks such as brushing our teeth or driving a car, which we learned initially through a series of steps that required significant concentration and time, are now performed with barely any thought.  Humans rely on habits quite a bit since they allow us to perform many actions in daily life, often simultaneously while doing other things without having to stop and fully concentrate on what we are doing, thus saving us time and energy.

What is a habitual cue?

A cue is an impulse or trigger that leads to a routine, such as a habit. Cues can be:

  • external cues -coming from the environment, meaning a location, a time of day or other people or places- for instance watching TV being a cue for the habit of wanting to snack
  • internal cues-which come from within, including mood, thinking patterns and sensations in the body- such as the feeling of drowsiness making you want to go to sleep

Why Habits Are Key to Our Health

Habits are essential to our health. They can make or break your chances of achieving and maintaining our lifestyle goals such as sticking to an eating plan, exercising regularly, and managing diabetes/other medical conditions, along with increasing quality of life and promoting longevity.  Bad habits like increased consumption of sugary soft drinks and fast food, as well as low activity levels are linked to development of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. On the flip side, maintaining healthy habits, such as eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and fresh foods and exercising regularly can prove very beneficial to health. Healthy habits can help us achieve proper weights, keep blood sugars in range and help lower the risk of diseases like diabetes and cancer.

Now that you know more about habits, consider these steps to improve yours:

  • Take a closer look at your own current habits
  • Decide what needs to be changed
  • Partner with your healthcare team to learn how to increase positive habits, and reduce negative ones

Understanding what habits are, as well as recognizing our own, good and bad is an important step towards helping you manage your diabetes and overall health.

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Orignially published on December 9, 2020, updated on December 09, 2020

Topic: Diabetes Management

Marie Feldman

About Marie Feldman

Marie Feldman, RD, CDCES, CHC is a health coach and senior team lead with Cecelia Health. Marie enjoys working with clients to empower them to meet their health and diabetes management goals. She also helps mentor coaches and is part of the social media team. Additionally, Marie a fitness enthusiast who loves developing healthy recipes and cooking. She has done a lot of writing and public speaking work, namely writing and research support for dietary cookbooks and newsletters and delivering nutrition lectures to various populations in the community.