Forming Lasting Healthy Habits

You’ve probably heard it said, if you want something bad enough, all you have to do is repeat it enough times until it forms a habit. Some studies have shown that 21 days is the magic time frame for forming habits. You may be surprised to learn, that everyone forms habits at a different rate. For some, it may take 6-8 months to form a new habit. For others, it may take one instance, and they’ve mastered the new habit…think a long term smoker who quits smoking cold turkey. So, if there’s no magic time frame to formulate a habit, how do we form lasting habits?


When forming a new habit, think about a circle. There is the “cue“, or trigger, that is the reminder to do the behavior. An example would be setting an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to get up and move, or drink water. The second component in the habit loop is “behavior“. Behavior is the habit that you wish to form. In this example, the behavior would be getting up and moving, or drinking a glass of water. The third component in the habit loop is the “reward”. The reward is the benefit of doing the habit. Possible rewards, in this example, could be losing or maintaining weight and increased flexibility. When these three things are done repeatedly, a habit is formed.

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Neuroscientists have found that there is a part of our brain, called basal ganglia, which is crucial for habit forming. Once a neural pathway for a habit is established in our brain, it never goes away. This is great news, as the thinking part of the brain can concentrate on other important activities. But the downside, is our brain doesn’t recognize good habits from bad. Our brain remembers the outcome of each habit. It remembers the feedback. If it is positive, it acts automatically when the cue comes again. Thus, the loop is formed and the neural pathway for the habit gets wired into our brain.


In summation, habits are formed through repetition. Neural pathways are formed in the brain every time we do a particular behavior. The more we repeat the desired behavior, the stronger the neural pathway becomes. Behaviors that have strong neural pathways become habits.

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