By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
"We are what we repeatedly do," Aristotle told us, although he could have amended this to "we are what we repeatedly eat."
If you start a new diet every January 1st and curse your failure every January 7th you'll know it takes more than willpower to make diet habits stick.
Motivation is sky-high when you begin to eat more vegetables, drink more water, skip junk food or take a walk every day.
But life gets in the way and somewhere down the line you're no longer following your new diet or fitness routine. If you start healthy habits more often than you change your clothes, you're not alone.
But don't despair - recent research shows you could be sabotaging your new routine through simple, easy-to-reverse actions. Want to make a healthy habit stick? Quit beating yourself up and take a look at these habit-forming strategies instead.
How Do You Make or Break Healthy Habits?
The key to making a habit a part of your life and not just a blip is to repeat the same behavior in the same situation, according to researchers at University College London, UK.
Context is more important than time, according to these scientists - for example, when eating a piece of fruit at breakfast it doesn't matter if you eat breakfast at 6am one day and 8am the next - you simply need a cue (breakfast, in this case - in the case of running it could be putting on your running playlist on your MP3).
Others, however, claim it is easier to form a habit if it takes place at the same time each day. The key is deciding exactly what you are going to do, in what situation, and be able to measure whether you complete the action.
A habit succeeds when you have performed the action consistently over time so that it becomes an easy, automatic part of your daily routine like, for example, brushing your teeth or feeding the dog.
The important thing to remember is that habits don't automatically ingrain themselves in your mind - you need willpower, or something like it.
Can You Build Willpower Like a Muscle?
When you strengthen a muscle through exercise it gets stronger, so if you strengthen willpower through training, will it help you form habits?
Yes, according to a 2000 study from Case Western Reserve University, which defined "willpower" as something that could be developed over time through training.
And according to a 2006 study from Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, strengthening muscles and aerobic capacities through weight training and fitness regimes also strengthened self-control and willpower.
If you develop a new healthy habit like going to the gym every day or eating whole grains you not only benefit directly from the new habit, researchers say, you also increase your willpower so it is easier to implement better behavior across other aspects of your life.
But how to make that healthy habit stick in the first place? We looked at recent studies to find out how to increase your chances of success.
1. Get Peer Pressure Behind You to Help Habits Stick
If you try to succeed at something alone you are more likely to lose motivation, interest or confidence than when you feel you are being watched - and possibly cheered on - by your peers.
A 2013 study from the University of Liverpool in the UK shows peer pressure not only affects how we dress or what car we drive, but the food we eat.
Researchers concluded that "people eat more when others around them are eating more, and that they eat less when they believe smaller portions are the norm."
A 2012 study from the National Institutes of Health also showed that people were significantly less likely to choose a healthy food item like a carrot if they were with someone eating unhealthily than if they were choosing alone or in the presence of someone eating healthily.
This makes sense - you are much more likely to continue eating healthily if your partner joins you than if they leave you to it and order pizza delivery every day.
2. Change Diet and Exercise at the Same Time
Should you get your diet right first before you change your exercise routine?
It turns out that, for the best, most long-lasting effects, you should do both at the same time. Change your way of eating and how much you exercise at the same time, according to results from a 2013 study by Stanford University School of Medicine.
The study looked at 200 people aged 45 and above who ate unhealthily and took little exercise.
The participants were part of one of four telephone coaching groups - the first helped people make changes to both diet and exercise at the same time, the second encouraged them to change diet first, the third to change exercise first, and the fourth group focused on reducing stress and made no changes to exercise or eating regimes.
The most successful group after 12 months was the one that changed both at the same time.
However, there's more to these results than meets the eye. Researchers hinted that the telephone coaching could actually be a key reason why diet habits were more likely to stick. Want to know more, read onů
3. Get Expert Help for Motivation to Make Habits Stick
In the 2013 study by Stanford University School of Medicine, telephone coaching lasted 40 minutes, once a month, and focused on ways to diet and strategies for exercise.
All those people taking part in the study reported improvements in how well they met their healthy eating targets or their exercise resolutions.
A 2003 study from the School of Health Promotion and Human Development, University of Wisconsin, showed one-on-one personal training was effective in changing attitudes around physical fitness, thus making it more likely exercise became a habit and increasing the frequency of fitness activities.
If you struggle to remember to exercise, or you are easily put off by rain or a looming deadline, a personal trainer or coach can make the difference between quitting and staying the course for the length of time it takes to make a habit stick.
4. Stick to It for 66 Days to Make Diet Habits Work
But how long, exactly, does it take to form a habit?
Type "how long to make a habit" into Google and you'll get a whole list of pages saying 21 days is the magic number. Sounds great, right? 21 days isn't that much.
However, a 2009 study from University College London, UK debunks the 21-day myth.
It actually takes 66 days (or a lot longer) for a habit to stick, according to the UK scientists. The study looked at 96 people who all wanted to change a behavior into a habit - for example, eating a piece of fruit with lunch, or running for 15 minutes every day. For 84 days they reported whether they had carried out the action and how automatic the action felt.
While 66 days was the average amount of time it took for a habit to form, there were significant variations depending on how complex the action was.
For example, drinking a glass of water after breakfast took 20 days, while 50 sit-ups after breakfast was still not a habit after the 84 days.
Remember that it takes a considerable amount of time for a habit to stick - you need to keep going past the space of a few weeks in order to be enjoying the habit for life.
5. A Positive Attitude Makes a Habit Stick
People with a positive attitude to the imposed habit increased the chances of making the habit stick, and cut the time it took for the habit to become automatic, in a 2013 study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.
The study was about flossing, but the positive attitude could equally apply to any area of life in which you are trying to make permanent changes - from eating less fat to running every morning.
If you are more confident that you will succeed, you are probably more likely to succeed.