How Do You Maintain Healthy Habits Long Term? A Psychologist Weighs In

Research shows instituting small behavioral changes can help build healthy habits that are sustainable for the long term.

What are your wellness goals this season? Are you hoping to feel stronger or more energized? Eat more greens or shed a few pounds? Whether you have hopes for your physical health, your emotional wellbeing or both, experts agree that habit-building is key to maintaining your health.

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According to neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, making small behavioral changes — and sustaining them — can noticeably (and positively) shift the way you feel both inside and out. But how do you make those changes stick? The first step to building habits with staying power is introspection, she says.

So ask yourself: Why are you seeking a behavioral change? How might it contribute to your overall wellbeing? Then, define exactly what accomplishing your goal will look like.

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Goal-setting is essential because it helps clarify the vision you have for your life, Hafeez says. And habits help break down your goals into daily, weekly and longer-term milestones. You can track those goals with programs like Noom, a digital wellness platform designed to help people meet their health goals and cultivate habits for weight management, stress reduction and more (and it offers a 14-day free trial to try it out).

Research, including a March 2020 study in the ‌European Journal of Clinical Nutrition,‌ shows that this behavioral approach to habit-building, particularly around weight management, works. "Cognitive behavioral techniques are well-researched to help patients achieve weight goals along with diet and exercise," Hafeez says. "[Putting] a photo of oneself on the fridge and sticking to fresh produce aisles are all great ways to use psychology to lose weight and build better habits."

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Once you've identified your goals, your focus can shift to building and sustaining behaviors that will help you achieve them. Here are Hafeez's tips for keeping your healthy habits up, long term.

1. Stack Your Habits

To maintain new behaviors in a way that feels sustainable and effective, Hafeez recommends habit stacking, i.e. attaching a new habit to one you've already established.

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"Pick one or two small habits and set alarms to attain them daily," Hafeez says. "Once you have achieved momentum, add another and then another. Habits only form from consistency [and] an object in motion stays in motion. So if you start going to the gym you may feel energetic enough to come back home and put away that pile of laundry. Give yourself a chance to see what one habit can lead to."

In other words, be patient as you make changes. "Implementing long-term habits may be less gratifying in the short term but pay dividends in the long haul," Hafeez says.

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This departure from instant gratification is particularly true for weight loss (and the basis of Noom's philosophy). "Crash diets can hurt your physical health," she says, while slower-building, longer-lasting habits like hydration, exercise and eating fruits and vegetables will prove more effective in the end.

2. Keep Yourself Accountable

Hafeez says accountability is key when it comes to learning your own behavioral tendencies and sustaining habits as you stack them. Lean on your network and seek out an accountability partner or coach — like one of Noom's personal coaches who support Noom users along the ups and downs of their health journeys.

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If weight management is your goal, Hafeez also recommends building habits alongside a friend, if you can. Meal prep together, take evening walks and encourage each other on challenging days.

3. Identify Root Causes

It's normal to slip out of a healthy habit from time to time, especially if it's new to your routine. When that happens, it's important to evaluate your fall-back tendency and trace its roots. "Often people undermine the effects of depression, anxiety and ADHD, all of which contribute to falling out of habits. A lack of motivation can be due to a change in brain health or fatigue," Hafeez says. "Finding the root cause can jump-start the process of getting back into [your] habits and routines."

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And most importantly, remember to give yourself care, patience and encouragement as you make long-lasting shifts to your life. That's the most important healthy habit to maintain, after all.

Want a little help maintaining your healthy habits, long term? Get started by taking Noom's free quiz, and you'll receive a 14-day free trial .

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