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Hack Your Brain: How To Keep Healthy Behaviors On Track

This is a guest post by Annie Lynsen, on loan to AARP from Small Act.

About this point in the New Year's Resolution cycle, the novelty has begun to wear off. Many healthy eating and exercising plans have been fudged or abandoned out of frustration.

One thing that I've learned in years of trying to live a healthy lifestyle is that willpower isn't enough. Willpower is like a muscle, and it can become exhausted over time. Basically, the emotional part of your brain needs more to feed it than what the rational part of your brain provides, and it will, ultimately, overcome the rational side if it's not placated. (For more on this concept and how to cope, check out the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath.)

There are several little "hacks" you can do to soothe the emotional side of your brain and make change easier to stick with. Here are a few ideas:

  • Keep to concrete "rules" as opposed to vague aspirations. If you're just aiming to "eat healthier," that's an easy thing to manipulate until you're back to your old habits. But if you say "I'm going to switch from 2 percent to 1 percent milk and exercise four times a week," that's harder to avoid. (And incidentally, that milk switch is a good idea. It makes a big difference in your saturated fat consumption, and you'll barely notice the change.)
  • Appeal to your senses. Keep a photo tacked to your wall that you find motivating. Find a good, healthy cookbook with gorgeous pictures and cook plates full of colorful, eye-pleasing vegetables. Use seasonings and fresh herbs that smell great and tantalize your taste buds. Buy yourself interesting new salad ingredients you haven't tried before. Suddenly, eating better isn't about depriving yourself - it's about enjoying a wonderful array of new foods and flavors.
  • Trick your brain with little, situational changes. For example, switching from a 12-inch dinner plate to a 10-inch dinner plate can, on average, cause you to consume 22 percent fewer calories in a meal, according to a study from Cornell University. Laying out your exercise clothes before you go to bed at night will make for fewer steps to get into them in the morning, and exercising will start to become automatic. Also, finding a friend to exercise with can make you feel more accountable and will motivate you to get out the door at a certain time (and will make that exercise all the more enjoyable!).

If you've already fallen away from healthy habits, don't worry. 2012 is just beginning, and you still have plenty of time to turn it around - and keep those healthy habits for good. It's never too late!

Photo credit: sass_face on Flickr

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