So you’ve decided you want to lose weight or get in shape. You’ve stocked the fridge with every imaginable vegetable, completely cleansed your pantry of temptation, dusted off the joggers and downloaded your workout app of choice.
But when it comes to sustainable, long-term results there’s one major thing you’re overlooking: habits.
Dr Gina Cleo, Accredited Practicing Dietitian and researcher at Bond University’s Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice, has led a number of studies proving that it’s not punishing diets or gruelling workouts that equal outcomes, it’s methods for altering behaviour.
In a recent study, Gina and a team of researchers split 75 overweight or obese people into three groups. One followed a program that promoted breaking old habits, one promoted forming new habits and one group was a waitlist control.
The habit-breaking group was sent a text message each day with a different task to perform, focusing on mixing up usual routines. They included things like “drive a different way to work” or “listen to a new genre of music”. The habit-forming group was tasked with following ten healthy lifestyle changes and they were encouraged to incorporate them into their daily routine.
After 12 weeks, participants in both groups had lost an average of 3.1kg and after 12 months they had lost another 2.1kg each. They also reported eating more fruit and vegetables, greater feelings of wellbeing and a reduction in depression and anxiety.
Why habits are so important?
“I think the really cool thing about habit change is that it fits in with everybody, there is no specific meal plan or exercise regimen,” Gina told Women’s Health. “So if someone just needs to change small little things at a time because that is what they are capable of, that’s ok.”
“Habits don’t require our self control and that’s my favourite part about this whole research, is that you can be eating healthy and doing exercise without the need for self control because you’re not even thinking about it because it's just something that you do.”
Gina says it’s about building habits like consistent meal times and swapping out soft drinks to a point where they’re as instinctive as brushing your teeth and tying your shoelaces.
“If we can work at small little habits that are healthier for somebody’s lifestyle then over time they can do those without thinking about it and gradually lose weight… That’s when we see long term change as opposed to just short term.”
What are the habits we should all be forming?
The 10 habits that Gina recommends are:
Keep to your meal routine: Maintain consistent meal times whether you’re eating twice a day or five times a day.
Go reduced fat: Enjoy small amounts of healthy fats from nuts, avocado and oily fish, instead of fast food and high-fat meats.
Walk off the weight: Try to walk 10,000 steps a day. Take the stairs, walk up escalators and get off one bus stop earlier - it all adds up.
Pack a healthy snack: If you do snack, go for healthy options like fresh fruit or a small handful of nuts.
Learn the labels: Checking food labels helps you pick healthier options that are lower in calories, fat and sugar and higher in fibre.
Caution with your portions: Don’t overload your plate unless it’s with vegetables and think twice before going back for seconds.
Up on your feet: Whether you’re at work or at home, try to stand for ten minutes every hour.
Think about your drinks: Alcohol, juice, fizzy drinks and energy drinks can be high in sugar and calories, so stick with no more than one small glass a day.
Focus on your food: Over-eating is all too easy while on the go or in front of the TV. Eating slowly is a surprisingly effective way to eat less.
Don’t forget your five a day: Having fruit or veggies at every meal makes it easier to get your five-a-day.
How can we help form these habits?
“Habits require consistency and a trigger,” Gina says. “You put on your seat belt because you're triggered by something in the car. So you have to associate either a time or a place for the behaviour you want to form. If you want to start eating more fruit for example, instead of saying to yourself ‘I’m going to eat more fruit’ you have to attach it to something. So it would be, ‘when I have breakfast I will have a piece of fruit’ and then eating breakfast becomes the trigger to remember to have that piece of fruit.”
How long does it take to make a habit?
Does the often trotted out 21-day rule ring true? Not quite, says Gina.
“That’s really just old research that has been outdated for decades,” she says. “It takes on average 66 days to change a habit but there is a huge range from between 18 to 254 days. And that depends on how habitual you are as a person, and how complex the behaviour is you are trying change."
“For example, say you want to form a new habit of drinking a glass of water, compared to habit of doing 50 push ups. Drinking a glass of water is a lot less complex than doing 50 push ups. For water drinking it might take about 18 days to form, whereas doing 50 push ups a day won't feel like second nature for a whole year.”
What bad habits should we be breaking?
“The more we repeat a behaviour the more habitual it gets, and whether its healthy or not it’s still a habit that will form. So the trick is to identify the unhealthy habits and change them.”
The biggest culprits? Gina says being sedentary, snacking mindlessly and incorrect portion sizes are the most common issues that lead to bad health.
Creating a habit can be hard, what happens if you 'fall off the wagon'?
"First of all self-compassion is one of the biggest facilitators for weight loss," Gina says. "We find people who feel bad about themselves tend to be high emotional eaters. So self compassion, and my second huge step is having support or a coach or accountability, just someone to keep you honest and keep you on track. We do find that people who do have a coach, and that’s just someone who checks in with you, will lose twice as much weight as people that don’t. And they will also more often stick with a program 100 per cent of the time."
Coaching is a huge component of Sum Sanos, a new 12 month program that's been created off the back of Gina's research.
“Sum Sanos is based on two major elements: the core psychological foundations of a 12 month global coaching program interwoven with Dr Cleo’s scientific research methodologies," Kate Krieg, Chief Operating Officer and Wellness Coach, says.
It steers clear of rigorous diets, prescriptive fitness programs and questionable supplements, focusing instead on habit based interventions and support.
"We want to be the final stop on our clients’ weight loss journey," Kate adds. “At Sum Sanos, we don’t want returning participants. We want to equip people with the ability to maintain their changed lives forever."