One of the most highly recommended ways to build good habits is by associating a new habit with positive reinforcement. This will make it easier to maintain over time.
Cristian Vargas Medical psychiatrist
ÁNGELA FRANCO CASTRO Nutritionist
A healthy habit is a habitual practice that, by repeating it, brings physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing to our daily lives. However, it is not always so easy to maintain over time, and the reason is often related to how we built that new habit.
Cristian Vargas, medical psychiatrist from the University of Antioquia, explains that all behaviors have some kind of stimulus that tends to be repeated, which is called reinforcement. He also states that there are different factors that can lead to a behavior being maintained over time. Positive reinforcement refers to the added reward following the behavior; punishment is the opposite stimulus after the behavior, which leads to the disappearance of a stimulus.
There are affective, economic, social, and tactile reinforcers. For example, when a person does exercise and feels pleasure, this makes the person want to exercise again. Hence the importance of linking a change in behavior to a reinforcer.
Also, it is advisable to always put the habits you want to adopt in a positive light: for example, instead of saying you will not drink sodas anymore, say that you are going to drink healthier drinks.
Some psychologists state that it takes 21 days to create a habit. However, Vargas does not share this point of view and claims that it is not that easy. “If it were so easy, people would go on a diet for 21 days and it would fix their lives, or they would stop being unfaithful after 21 days.”
The medical psychiatrist, in turn, shares three aspects that he considers important when making a plan for healthy habits:
Keep a diary of what you do: According to Vargas, the first thing a therapist should do with patients before providing recommendations about habits is to monitor and build a diary of what they do day to day, instead of sending them “lists of perfect behaviors.” “If I want to change your eating habits, first I need to understand what you eat.” An example of this is some doctors or nutritionists recommending peanuts for helping anxiety without considering that this food could inflame the patient’s colon.
Activate a value system: It is advisable to monitor and identify which behaviors are not in line with your value system. “Often recommendations fail because they lead people to practice behaviors associated with the therapist’s values and not the patients’ values,” he explained. On the other hand, if the professional is able to connect with what is valuable to the patient, everything is easier. These values are defined using adjectives. For example, if feeling free is important for the patient, then you need to set up activities that allow the patient to be and feel that way.
Take committed actions: You have to make an action plan to reach your goal, and from there, define the activities that are easiest to achieve, breaking down larger behaviors or goals into smaller ones. This action plan should be monitored to know if it is effective or if we missed our goal.
One way of practicing healthy habits at home and motivating children can be through positive reinforcement by using smiley faces, small rewards from time to time, or small allowances. For example: if your child eats soup for several days, on the fifth day, allow him to watch a movie.
Another useful technique is to link a new behavior to one that is already established or automatic, such as taking a new medicine after showering or when reaching for the towel. Another way is to use an external application that helps you remember the new behavior. “If I am doing physical activity at home, it is easy to set an alarm for earlier as a reminder,” he explained. When it comes to behaviors that are more difficult to remember, having someone external, like a coach, who can establish some rewards for achieving certain goals is advisable.•
You have to create them at home
When talking about healthy habits at home, diet is one of the most related topics.
For Ángela Franco Castro, nutritionist and specialist in Human Nutrition from the University of Antioquia, habits are built from childhood, which is why it is a little more difficult to implement changes when we are adults. However, it is not impossible.
She explained that we are just in time to change our habits by incorporating foods from all food groups. Also, she recommends trying to include lots of legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and low-fat and low-sugar dairy; and little by little start to include fruits and vegetables, until reaching the goal of five servings per day.
According to the specialist, one behavior that is not considered as a healthy habit is skipping breakfast, because in the morning we wake up with low glycemia, which can cause headaches, instability, and can even cause us to accumulate fat more easily. In this respect, she proposes breaking the fast by eating something simple as early as possible, and having a piece of fruit, orange juice, or a bit of dairy mid-morning.