Don't Fall Back into Bad Habits

How to keep a good thing going

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on September 02, 2005
6 min read

You worked hard on making better eating choices and exercising. And for a few weeks or maybe a few months, you did well. You lost weight, felt better, and were sure that this time, your new and improved health habits were here to stay.

But then there was a big project at work that had you ordering in pizza at your desk rather than going out for a low-calorie lunch. Your children needed extra help with their homework, so your evening walks got put on the back burner. And before you know it, those hard-won healthy changes went by the wayside.

What happened? While you weren't looking, you slid right back into your old habits.

Habits, whether good or bad, are repeated patterns of behavior that we do without conscious thought, says Jo Anne White, PhD, a life coach and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

They key to changing habits and keeping them changed is to take conscious control, says White. To begin with, make a decision to change the defeating habit and set a specific date for when you'll begin. Then, write down and consider why you want to make the change.

"Once you've physically done something -- in this case, writing it down -- your action gives power to your mental commitment," says White. "It tells you: Now you're serious."

For many people, maintaining weight loss and fitness gains are harder than achieving them in the first place.

One of the most common reasons for relapsing is stress, says Malena Perdomo, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Family and work issues, or any major life change, can trigger a slide, says Perdomo. So can feeling bored, sad, or guilty.

"Become aware of the times you slip up," advises Rebecca "Kiki" Weingarten, MSEd, MFA, coach and co-founder of Daily Life Consulting in New York. "Stop for a second to see why you want to eat."

Ask yourself if you're really hungry, or need some comfort food, Weingarten says. If you really need an "emotional" snack, you don't have to deny yourself -- just make a better choice. Sucking on a piece a hard candy instead of downing an entire candy bar, for example, may do the trick. So may drinking a diet soda instead of a sugar-laden one.

"You don't have to stop enjoying your life," says Weingarten. "You just have to substitute new, positive habits for old, negative ones."

In fact, Howard Shapiro, MD, author of the Picture Perfect Weight Loss series, believes that the fastest way to fall into bad diet habits is by depriving yourself of your favorite foods. Shapiro says it's not so much about dieting as training yourself to make smarter choices.

Craving ice cream? Instead of opting for a cup of ice cream with 300 calories, have a fudgsicle for just 40 calories. Need a carb fix? Instead of a bagel with butter for 640 calories, try two slices of whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and a cup of fruit, all for 370 calories.

Another type of healthy choice involves the "power of place," says behaviorist Peggy Vincent of The Methodist Hospital in Houston.

"Where you are has a lot to do with what you do," says Vincent. "Stay away from places that have been problematic for you in the past, and spend more time in places where healthy behaviors are the norm."

Don't sit in your favorite Mexican restaurant and wonder why you can't resist the chips, or spend an evening on the sofa watching TV and hoping not to snack, Vincent says. Instead, spend more time in the gym, take an evening class to get out of the house, or try a restaurant with healthy menu selections.

Sticking with an exercise program can be at least as challenging as maintaining a healthy eating plan.

"At least 50% of people who start an exercise program drop out after six months," says Ken Turley, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology and director of the Wellness Center at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.

According to Richard Ray, PhD, chairman of kinesiology and coordinator of the athletic training program at Hope College in Holland, Mich., most people quit their workout programs because they fail to make a true lifestyle change when they begin exercising.

"In some cases, they are exercising to try to achieve a particular goal, and once their goal is achieved, they modify their behavior -- which usually includes decreasing their exercise frequency and intensity," he says.

To avoid slacking off on your exercise program, Turley and Ray offer the following tips:

  • Set measurable goals -- like number of minutes walked or number of weight-lifting reps. Be specific, but realistic.
  • Find an "accountability partner" who can exercise with you.
  • Tell close friends and family your intentions and goals to help keep you on track.
  • Decide in advance how much time each day or each week you can devote to a fitness program. "Make sure it is realistic," says Ray. "Schedule it like you would a meeting or other things throughout your day."
  • Use reminders -- Post-it notes, computer memos, whatever works for you.
  • Track and celebrate your progress.
  • Create a reward system for yourself.

Motivation is ultimately the key when keeping up any lifestyle change, says Lou Manza, PhD, associate professor of psychology and department chairman at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.

When you begin to feel discouraged and want to fall back into old habits, Manza recommends getting away from your workout program for a week or two. Don't be inactive during your break; just do another form of exercise that is less taxing on your body and mind.

And don't use a temporary setback as an excuse to give up on your workout.

"Don't let a setback completely derail your lifestyle change," Ray adds. "If you miss a day or even a week, don't give into the temptation to quit altogether."

Too often, people take an "all-or-nothing" approach to sensible eating and working out, which can lead to giving up altogether, says Debbie Mandel, MA, author of Changing Habits.

"If you can't do an hour workout today because you are tired, do 15 minutes instead," she suggests. "See how that goes, and then see if you can do another 15 minutes. Sometimes 15 minutes is good enough, and other times you'll find yourself completing the whole hour."

According to Mandel, it takes about 21 days for a new habit to take hold, so don't be hard on yourself if the first few weeks are a struggle. To help the process along, Mandel offers the following advice:

  • Take one small step at a time. "A small change is manageable," says Mandel. "Too many changes at one time can be overwhelming."
  • Don't be unkind to yourself. Enjoy the day off from working out or savor that special meal or treat, then be eager to get back on schedule the next day.
  • Don't overdo. Too much exercise can lead to fatigue and even injury; too little food can actually slow your metabolism down.
  • Change your routine. Vary your workout and your meals. "Introduce fun into your life!" she says.
  • Get group support. Work out with a friend, join a league, start a lunchtime fitness group at work.
  • Post affirmations and motivating quotes inside and outside the refrigerator.

Finally, expect to fall back from time to time, says Weingarten. Then you won't be derailed when you do.

"Remember that it takes time for new habits to become routine," she says. "After all, you didn't know how to tie your shoes once upon a time, either.

"You will have bad days. But that doesn't mean it's all over."