We all have bad habits we would like to change. Whether it’s snacking too much or skimping on sleep, vices can be hard to kick once they become routines hardwired into our brains.
Identifying a bad habit is the first step toward improving your health and well-being, experts say, but motivation alone is not always enough. Research reveals that you’re most likely to be successful in changing your habits if you set small but specific goals, redesign your environment and replace a bad habit with a better-for-you substitute.
What does that look like for a specific habit you want to break? Here are some common bad habits and advice from experts on each:
1. Bad habit: Sitting too much
Why it’s dangerous: Research shows that prolonged sitting increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and other health problems.
The more time you spend sitting, the higher your risk of an early death. A 2017 study that tracked the activity levels of 7,985 adults over age 45 found that those who had the greatest amount of sedentary time had almost double the mortality risk of those who spent less time sitting.
Surveys show the amount of time Americans spend sitting has been increasing, and older adults sit for an average of six hours a day.
How to stop:
- Set a timer: Set an alarm on your cellphone as a reminder to get up and move every half-hour or hour, suggests Catherine Jankowski, an exercise physiologist and associate professor in the college of nursing at the University of Colorado. When you’re watching TV, make it a point to march in place or do a few squats during commercial breaks. A study published in 2015 found that trading two minutes of sitting for two minutes of light activity each hour lowered the risk of death by about 33 percent.
- Try a fitness tracker: A smart watch is a good tool because it tracks all your activity over the course of a day, whether you’re walking from a distant parking spot or moving inside your house. Trackers can also be motivating because you can work toward specific goals such as steps per day, Jankowski says.
- Tie physical activity to something you enjoy: Listen to a podcast or audiobook while you walk, or invite a friend to join you for a daily stroll. If you like volunteering, look for an opportunity that includes movement, whether it’s pushing the book cart at a hospital, walking dogs at the animal shelter or picking up trash along roads.
2. Bad habit: Snacking nonstop
Why it’s dangerous: Snacking in and of itself is not necessarily bad for your health, says nutritionist Sandra Arévalo, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It depends how often you snack, how much you eat and what you’re snacking on.
Unfortunately, a 2021 survey found that most Americans choose sugar- or salt-laden snacks, the most popular choices being potato chips (56 percent), chocolate (55 percent) and candy (45 percent). The average number of snacks consumed per day has doubled in the past 30 years. Studies show the more snacks you eat, the higher your calorie consumption.
How to stop:
- Watch your portions: If you tend to mindlessly grab handfuls of chips from a family-size bag or box, you’re probably eating more than you realize, Arévalo says. Measure out one serving at a time into a small container and put the rest away. Try to be mindful as you eat, focusing on the flavor, taste and quality of the snack.
- Make it easy to grab a healthy substitute: Have preportioned bags of nuts, yogurt, cheese sticks and cut-up veggies or fruit within easy reach. Keep unhealthy snacks out of the house, or put them on a high shelf or in the back of the pantry where they are harder to get to.
- Drink a glass of water first: People often confuse thirst with hunger, so challenge yourself to down a glass of water before consuming any snack.
- Distract yourself: Are you really hungry or just bored or stressed? Instead of eating, try taking a quick walk, journaling or doing your nails. “Get busy with something,” Arévalo says. “Once you do that, the need to eat may go away.”
3. Bad habit: Eating too much sugar
Why it’s dangerous: A high-sugar diet is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, cancer and diabetes. Newer research shows a link to mental health and brain function, says Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard and author of This is Your Brain on Food.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day for men and 6 teaspoons per day for women. The average U.S. adult eats about 17 teaspoons of sugar each day, almost double the limit for men and triple the limit for women.