A quick guide to understanding and defeating unhealthy behaviors. Our habits affect our training and conversely our training affects our habits. The idea that a person’s training habits and lifestyle habits are not mutually independent is not new. Modern advances in human psychology are bringing new insights into how habits are formed and changed however. Arguably, behind every habit (particularly bad habit) there is an addiction whether physical, psychological, social, or a combination of the three. Understanding our habit formation process can be a powerful tool in improving our training and overall health.
A ‘habit’ can be defined as the following : ” an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street….an addiction, especially to narcotics…a constant or regular disposition or tendency; prevailing character or quality…” (dictionary.com). Just how are habits formed? Habit formation occurs when behaviours (often new) become automated through a psychological pattern identified as a ‘habit loop’. This loop commences with a trigger or neural cue which essentially puts the brain into automatic behaviour display. This is a very important concept to recognize about our habits; once formed they are automatic, that is to say, our traditional thought process disassociates involvement in the execution of the action to the point that habits often become unconscious behaviours.
The neural pathways (maps created to and by the brain and Central Nervous System) are very difficult to rewrite or rewire once formed. Specifically, our habit forming behaviours are controlled by the basal ganglia, this part of the brain is responsible in large part for the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Our brain’s prefrontal cortex which is highly involved in decision making generally shuts down once a habit is formed and automated. Here, with prefrontal cortex absent, the habit basically becomes a behavioural loop. Over time, and in order for our species to survive, our brain evolved to create automatic behaviour in an attempt to conserve brain capacity and energy for other tasks. Early forms of multitasking perhaps. We are still very much a product of our evolved body. Understanding this is key. Recognizing our habits and or addictions and how they affect our brain chemistry is the first crucial step. (step one)
The good news is that our brain is somewhat malleable and certain pathways can be rewritten to some extent. Just as repetition is the catalyst to forming habits, practicing alternative behaviours can eventually replace current patterns. Removing ourselves from our everyday environment (vacation, travel, different route to work, different restaurant) provide great opportunities to alter or modify routines. When our environment changes our brain adapts and we generally have a more active prefrontal cortex (we start making more decisions). If you find yourself drinking unwanted beers or alcoholic beverages on your business lunches for example, start going to restaurants that don’t serve these options. Break your current habits by identifying them (step two) and altering your environment (step three)
It is possible to change. You can form new healthy habits to replace the routines that are negatively affecting your ability to train and live a healthy lifestyle. (step four) Change and improvement require practice. Olympic athletes, professional musicians, spiritual gurus, visual artists, dancers, all practice thought and movement patterns thousands of times before they even come close to perfecting them. Choose the gym, yoga studio, a brisk walk, a bike ride over watching tv for an hour. Your new healthy habits will take dedication and time but with enough consistency can become automated. How many of you reading this brush your teeth every morning or put your seatbelt on immediately after getting into a car without very little (if any) conscious thought?
• Accept that you may have addictions to certain environments, food combinations or other substances that directly affect how your brain operates
• Recognize your bad habit and understand this is an automatic pattern that can be changed
• Change the environment or circumstances within which your current bad habit is thriving
• Identify a new healthy habit and begin by consciously practicing a set schedule
No strategy is completely fool proof or an immediate fix when overcoming bad habits. Time and practice will indeed be your best weapons. Accepting failure by not punishing oneself but rather trying again is exactly the patience and consistency needed to create any positive lifestyle change. The greater the addiction or formed habit, the more resilience you will need. Ultimately, change will be determined by this degree of willingness. If you are sincere in prioritizing your health, your life, if change is absolutely what you want, then all that remains is your willingness to create the most powerful habit of all: effort.
As always: ‘Live to train….Train to live better’
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