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Changing Your Habits for Better Health

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Are you thinking about being more active? Have you been trying to cut back on less healthy foods? Are you starting to eat better and move more but having a hard time sticking with these changes?

Old habits die hard. Changing your habits is a process that involves several stages. Sometimes it takes a while before changes become new habits. And, you may face roadblocks along the way.

Adopting new, healthier habits may protect you from serious health problems like obesity and diabetes. New habits, like healthy eating and regular physical activity, may also help you manage your weight and have more energy. After a while, if you stick with these changes, they may become part of your daily routine.

An older couple biking in the countryside, wearing helmets.
New habits may help you look better and have more energy.

The information below outlines four stages you may go through when changing your health habits or behavior. You will also find tips to help you improve your eating, physical activity habits, and overall health. The four stages of changing a health behavior are

  • contemplation
  • preparation
  • action
  • maintenance

What stage of change are you in?

Contemplation: “I’m thinking about it.”

In this first stage, you are thinking about change and becoming motivated to get started.

You might be in this stage if you

  • have been considering change but are not quite ready to start
  • believe that your health, energy level, or overall well-being will improve if you develop new habits
  • are not sure how you will overcome the roadblocks that may keep you from starting to change

Preparation: “I have made up my mind to take action.”

In this next stage, you are making plans and thinking of specific ideas that will work for you.

You might be in this stage if you

  • have decided that you are going to change and are ready to take action
  • have set some specific goals that you would like to meet
  • are getting ready to put your plan into action

Action: “I have started to make changes.”

In this third stage, you are acting on your plan and making the changes you set out to achieve.

You might be in this stage if you

  • have been making eating, physical activity, and other behavior changes in the last 6 months or so
  • are adjusting to how it feels to eat healthier, be more active, and make other changes such as getting more sleep or reducing screen time
  • have been trying to overcome things that sometimes block your success

Maintenance: “I have a new routine.”

In this final stage, you have become used to your changes and have kept them up for more than 6 months.

You might be in this stage if

  • your changes have become a normal part of your routine
  • you have found creative ways to stick with your routine
  • you have had slip-ups and setbacks but have been able to get past them and make progress

Did you find your stage of change? Read on for ideas about what you can do next.

Contemplation: Are you thinking of making changes?

Making the leap from thinking about change to taking action can be hard and may take time. Asking yourself about the pros (benefits) and cons (things that get in the way) of changing your habits may be helpful. How would life be better if you made some changes?

Think about how the benefits of healthy eating or regular physical activity might relate to your overall health. For example, suppose your blood glucose, also called blood sugar, is a bit high and you have a parent, brother, or sister who has type 2 diabetes. This means you also may develop type 2 diabetes. You may find that it is easier to be physically active and eat healthy knowing that it may help control blood glucose and protect you from a serious disease.

Woman with her hand on her chin thinking about making changes in her habits.
Making the leap from thinking about change to taking action can be hard and may take a while.

You may learn more about the benefits of changing your eating and physical activity habits from a health care professional. This knowledge may help you take action.

Look at the lists of pros and cons below. Find the items you believe are true for you. Think about factors that are important to you.

Healthy Eating

Pros Cons
  • have more energy
  • improve my health
  • lower my risk for health problems
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • feel proud of myself
  • set an example for friends and family
  • _______________________
  • _______________________
  • may spend more money and time on food
  • may need to cook more often at home
  • may need to eat less of foods I love
  • may need to buy different foods
  • may need to convince my family that we all have to eat healthier foods
  • _______________________
  • _______________________

Physical Activity

Pros Cons
  • improve my health
  • reduce my risk for serious health problems
  • feel better about myself
  • become stronger
  • have fun
  • take time to care for myself
  • meet new people and spend time with them
  • have more energy
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • become a role model for others
  • _______________________
  • _______________________
  • takes too much time and energy
  • it is too hot or cold outside
  • feel self-conscious
  • am nervous about my health
  • could hurt myself
  • am not good at being active
  • do not know what to do
  • have no one to be active with
  • am not young or fit enough
  • keeps me from family and friends
  • _______________________
  • _______________________

Preparation: Have you made up your mind?

If you are in the preparation stage, you are about to take action. To get started, look at your list of pros and cons. How can you make a plan and act on it?

The chart below lists common roadblocks you may face and possible solutions to overcome roadblocks as you begin to change your habits. Think about these things as you make your plan.

Roadblock Solution
I don’t have time. Make your new healthy habit a priority. Fit in physical activity whenever and wherever you can. Try taking the stairs or getting off the bus a stop early if it is safe to do so. Set aside one grocery shopping day a week, and make healthy meals that you can freeze and eat later when you don’t have time to cook.
Healthy habits cost too much. You can walk around the mall, a school track, or a local park for free. Eat healthy on a budget by buying in bulk and when items are on sale, and by choosing frozen or canned fruits and vegetables.
I can’t make this change alone. Recruit others to be active with you, which will help you stay motivated and safe. Consider signing up for a fun fitness class like salsa dancing. Get your family or coworkers on the healthy eating bandwagon. Plan healthy meals together with your family, or start a healthy potluck once a week at work.
I don’t like physical activity. Forget the old notion that being physically active means lifting weights in a gym. You can be active in many ways, including dancing, walking, or gardening. Make your own list of options that appeal to you. Explore options you never thought about, and stick with what you enjoy.
I don’t like healthy foods. Try making your old favorite recipes in healthier new ways. For example, you can trim fat from meats and reduce the amount of butter, sugar, and salt you cook with. Use low-fat cheeses or milk rather than whole-milk foods. Add a cup or two of broccoli, carrots, or spinach to casseroles or pasta.

Once you have made up your mind to change your habits, make a plan and set goals for taking action. Here are some ideas for making your plan:

  • learn more about healthy eating and food portions
  • learn more about being physically active
  • make lists of
    • healthy foods that you like or may need to eat more of—or more often
    • foods you love that you may need to eat less often
    • things you could do to be more physically active
    • fun activities you like and could do more often, such as dancing

After making your plan, start setting goals for putting your plan into action. Start with small changes. For example, “I’m going to walk for 10 minutes, three times a week.” What is the one step you can take right away?

Action: Have you started to make changes?

You are making real changes to your lifestyle, which is fantastic! To stick with your new habits

  • review your plan
  • look at the goals you set and how well you are meeting them
  • overcome roadblocks by planning ahead for setbacks
  • reward yourself for your hard work

Track your progress

  • Tracking your progress helps you spot your strengths, find areas where you can improve, and stay on course. Record not only what you did, but how you felt while doing it—your feelings can play a role in making your new habits stick.
  • Recording your progress may help you stay focused and catch setbacks in meeting your goals. Remember that a setback does not mean you have failed. All of us experience setbacks. The key is to get back on track as soon as you can.
  • You can track your progress with online tools such as the NIH Body Weight Planner. The NIH Body Weight Planner lets you tailor your calorie and physical activity plans to reach your personal goals within a specific time period.

Overcome roadblocks

  • Remind yourself why you want to be healthier. Perhaps you want the energy to play with your nieces and nephews or to be able to carry your own grocery bags. Recall your reasons for making changes when slip-ups occur. Decide to take the first step to get back on track.
  • Problem-solve to “outsmart” roadblocks. For example, plan to walk indoors, such as at a mall, on days when bad weather keeps you from walking outside.
  • Ask a friend or family member for help when you need it, and always try to plan ahead. For example, if you know that you will not have time to be physically active after work, go walking with a coworker at lunch or start your day with an exercise video.

Reward yourself

  • After reaching a goal or milestone, allow for a nonfood reward such as new workout gear or a new workout device. Also consider posting a message on social media to share your success with friends and family.
  • Choose rewards carefully. Although you should be proud of your progress, keep in mind that a high-calorie treat or a day off from your activity routine are not the best rewards to keep you healthy.
  • Pat yourself on the back. When negative thoughts creep in, remind yourself how much good you are doing for your health by moving more and eating healthier.

Maintenance: Have you created a new routine?

Make your future a healthy one. Remember that eating healthy, getting regular physical activity, and other healthy habits are lifelong behaviors, not one-time events. Always keep an eye on your efforts and seek ways to deal with the planned and unplanned changes in life.

Man and woman shopping for produce.
Eating healthy and being physically active are lifelong behaviors, not one-time events.

Now that healthy eating and regular physical activity are part of your routine, keep things interesting, avoid slip-ups, and find ways to cope with what life throws at you.

Add variety and stay motivated

  • Mix up your routine with new physical activities and goals, physical activity buddies, foods, recipes, and rewards.

Deal with unexpected setbacks

  • Plan ahead to avoid setbacks. For example, find other ways to be active in case of bad weather, injury, or other issues that arise. Think of ways to eat healthy when traveling or dining out, like packing healthy snacks while on the road or sharing an entrée with a friend in a restaurant.
  • If you do have a setback, don’t give up. Setbacks happen to everyone. Regroup and focus on meeting your goals again as soon as you can.

Challenge yourself!

  • Revisit your goals and think of ways to expand them. For example, if you are comfortable walking 5 days a week, consider adding strength training twice a week. If you have limited your saturated fat intake by eating less fried foods, try cutting back on added sugars, too. Small changes can lead to healthy habits worth keeping.

Clinical Trials

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and other components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conduct and support research into many diseases and conditions.

What are clinical trials, and are they right for you?

Clinical trials are part of clinical research and at the heart of all medical advances. Clinical trials look at new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease. Researchers also use clinical trials to look at other aspects of care, such as improving the quality of life for people with chronic illnesses. Find out if clinical trials are right for you.

What clinical trials are open?

Clinical trials that are currently open and are recruiting can be viewed at www.ClinicalTrials.gov.

Last Reviewed November 2020
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.

The NIDDK would like to thank:
Dr. Carla Miller, Associate Professor, Ohio State University