Learn to form healthy habits by replacing the bad ones. Substituting healthy habits for unhealthy ones rewards you with more stamina, better quality of life – and a healthier you.
That is easier said than done, of course, but some simple tips can help you tackle even the most indulgent and hardest-to-kick habits. Rani Whitfield, M.D., a Baton Rouge, La., family practitioner and American Heart Association volunteer, is on a mission to help people change their unhealthy habits.
“An unhealthy habit is easy to develop and hard to live with; a healthy habit is harder to develop but easier to live with,” said Whitfield, who has earned the nickname “The Hip Hop Doc” through his work getting young people to make healthier choices.
Regardless of your age, you can benefit from Whitfield’s simple habit-changing tips.First, he says, know that it takes 60 to 90 days to create a new habit. You have to keep after it. If you forget sometimes, or if at first you don’t figure how to make it work with your schedule, keep after it.
It helps to remember that an unhealthy habit is attractive because it gives instant gratification—that immediate “feel good.” But you pay later. On the other hand, a healthy habit means you put off gratification but get a much bigger payoff down the road.
Think of your task as replacement rather than deprivation. Says Whitfield, “Kojak sucked on lollipops because he was stopping smoking,” said of the famous 1970s TV detective. Of course, too much candy is bad for you, too – but a few lollipops is much better than smoking when it comes to your heart health. Whitfield says it’s important to “find your real motivation.” It’s OK and in fact helpful to use another motivation in addition to getting healthier. “A lot of people will do it for their children,” he says. They want to set a good example, or they simply want to live to see their kids graduate. And then there’s good old vanity. “If you want six-pack abs, maybe your motivation is to ask out a certain lady,” says Whitfield.
Here are his top tips:
- Break a big goal into smaller short-term goals. “Don’t go cold turkey,” he says. “Suppose you’re drinking five beers a day, and you want to get down to six a month. Reduce to three a day. You’ll see the benefits and feel more motivated to move toward your longer-term goal.”
- Tell someone you trust – not someone who will sabotage you. Be accountable to someone all the time.
It’s toughest forming a healthy habit if you don’t have support. For example, one spouse might be trying to stop smoking while the other one isn’t. “You have to find some inner strength, some self-motivation and push through it. Or get couples counseling, a safe setting where you can ask your spouse: ‘Can you be supportive and go outside to smoke?’ ”
- Allow a “cheat” once in a while. “If you’ve avoided sweets all week and you’ve been exercising, and you go to Grandma’s, you can afford that ONE small piece of apple pie. Or let yourself have one ‘crazy meal’ a week.”
- Break the TV habit in favor of exercise. “Tell yourself, ‘If I just have to watch Martin Lawrence, I’ll Tivo it and watch on the weekend, or do my exercise and then have the show as my reward to myself.’
“Or, if you have room, you can exercise in front of the TV,” he said. For some, TV seems to be their only friend. “If it’s all about escapism, the underlying anxiety or depression needs to be treated, or if you can’t finish tasks, do your work or the housework,” He says.
“More people are drinking or using marijuana more often to deal with anxiety and depression over family problems or lack of a job, and maybe the inability to relax or to sleep,” Whitfield says. ”They are not understanding that they are making their own problems worse. Alcohol is a depressant; illegal drugs will land you in jail.”
The Hip-Hop Doc’s best habits for heart health:
- Consistent exercise, 30 minutes a day, seven days a week. Read the AHA's recommendations for adults.
- Quitting Smoking.
- If you currently need medication for a cardiovascular condition, take meds faithfully. “If you forget, put them with your toothbrush.”
Keep at it. Your greatest wealth is your health.
You do all you can think of to prevent your child from coming down with a cold or an upset tummy — from feeding her balanced meals to scrubbing the floors she plays on. But that's only half the battle: She has to learn how to keep herself healthy. And there's plenty of lessons to teach her: Start by explaining that germs are responsible for the yucky feeling she gets when she's sick. Then instruct her on healthy habits. You'll have to demonstrate these hygiene lessons over and over, but pretty soon she'll be able to grasp them — and follow through on them (at least most of the time!). So what are the most important lessons to start with? The top-five healthy habits for children are:
HEALTHY HABIT #1: Give Hands a Good Scrub
Hand washing tops the list of healthy habits children should learn for one simple reason: Doing it often — and doing it right — can reduce the number of colds, flu, and other infections children get by 50 percent! That's a lot of sore throats, runny noses, and just-plain-ickiness a child can avoid simply by stepping up to the sink, especially at key times: before eating or heading to the playroom with a friend (this will keep germs on shared toys to a minimum), after coming in from playing outside, and after sneezing, coughing, petting an animal, or using the potty.
What's more, even a baby can start to pick up on this all-important healthy habit — by watching as you wipe off her hands (do it frequently; according to some research, crawling babies handle and mouth the random stuff they find lying around more than 80 times per hour); and then, when she's old enough to follow simple directions, by mastering these hand-washing how-tos:
- Use warm water and soap.
- Make lots and lots of suds; bubbles trap germs.
- Scrub for at least 20 seconds — about the time it takes to sing the ABC song or "Happy Birthday" twice through (at normal — not breakneck! — speed).
- Rub fronts and backs of hands, and between every little finger: Friction is as important as soap and water for getting little mitts clean.
- Rinse thoroughly, so that every single germ goes down the drain.
- Dry hands on a clean towel.
HEALTHY HABIT #2: Do the "Sleeve Sneeze"
What's next on the list of healthy habits for children? When your kid feels an "achoo" coming on and there's no tissue in sight, show him how to let loose into the inside of his elbow, rather than into his hand or the air. This way germs won't wind up on his fingers — 80 percent of germs are transferred through touch — or spewed out into the air. This healthy habit applies to coughs as well — and to you too, so be a good role model whenever you sneeze sans tissues.
HEALTHY HABIT #3: Toss That Tissue!
Once your child has mastered the fine art of nose-blowing, get her into the habit of disposing of dirty tissues right away, rather than leaving them lying around on a table or the floor: Some bacteria and viruses can live for two hours or more outside the body, so getting rid of tissues is another healthy habit for children to learn. Make sure there's a trash can in every room your child spends time in or teach her to flush yucky tissues down the toilet.
HEALTHY HABIT #4: Don't Share
Certain items can harbor germs and other icky things, so your child will have to learn that some things are not meant to be shared. Explain to your child that while it's nice to let pals play with toys, there are things he should keep to himself — namely combs, brushes, and hats (sharing these items is the number-one way lice spread from kid to kid); toothbrushes; cups, forks, and drinking straws; whistles, horns, and other objects you put your mouth on (good luck with that one!); and, of course, tissues.
HEALTHY HABIT #5: Flush and Flee
Now for some potty talk: While it's tempting for a child (particularly a toddler who's in the middle of toilet training) to want to watch the precious products of her efforts swirl away, it's not such a great idea to encourage her to do this. With every flush, droplets of water containing minute particles of whatever was just deposited (yes, that means pee, poop, or vomit) spew into the air. Not only could this geyser of germs land directly on your kid, it could settle on nearby surfaces. So if you want your children to pick up this particular healthy habit, show them how to put down the lid (carefully, of course — a mashed finger isn't any more fun than a tummy ache that can result from the type of bacteria lurking in the toilet.).