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. Instead, 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.
But what does that look like for a specific habit you want to break? Here are five common bad habits and advice from experts on each:
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.
In fact, 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.
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Yet surveys show the amount of time Americans spend sitting has been increasing, with older adults now sitting 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 like 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 local roads.
Bad habit: Snacking non-stop
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 are choosing sugar- or salt-laden snacks, with the most popular choices being potato chips (56 percent), chocolate (55 percent) and candy (45 percent). In addition, 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. Instead, 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.”
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 also 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. Yet 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.
How to stop:
- Watch for hidden sugars: Check the grams of added sugar on nutrition labels and track how much sugar you are eating in a day, Naidoo says. Women should aim for no more than 24 grams (6 teaspoons). For men, it’s 36 grams (9 teaspoons). Sugar is often added to savory foods you wouldn’t expect, such as ketchup, salad dressings, pasta sauces, crackers and pizza.
- Reach for fruit: The next time you have a sweet tooth, go for a mandarin orange, mango or pineapple before you grab a sugar-sweetened treat, Arévalo suggests. “Fruit still tastes sweet, but it provides some vitamins and fiber,” she says.
- Sweeten foods yourself: Flavored foods such as oatmeal and yogurt are loaded with sugar. Instead, buy plain yogurt or oatmeal, and add fresh or frozen fruit, unsweetened applesauce or even a drizzle of honey or pure maple syrup. Flavored coffee drinks can also pack a sugar load; a better option is to start with an unsweetened latte and add your favorite sweetener.
Bad habit: Drinking too much
Why it’s dangerous: While most experts say it’s fine to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, excessive drinking is tied to health conditions including high blood pressure, heart and liver disease, stroke and cancer. Too much alcohol can also cause depression, anxiety and sleeplessness, and it weakens your immune system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines “heavy drinking” as eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more per week for men.
How to stop:
- Set specific limits: Try designating one or two alcohol-free days, or set a goal to drink only on weekends. Also limit yourself to a specific number of drinks per day. Write your goals down and track how well you’re meeting them, Arévalo says. If you find yourself constantly finding excuses to drink anyway, ask a friend, family member or health professional for support.
- Pace yourself: Sip your drink slowly, and have a glass of water or sparkling water after each alcoholic drink, Naidoo advises. That will help keep you from getting dehydrated and slow you down so you’re not drinking continuously. You can also choose lower alcohol alternatives or drinks that are more diluted. Never drink on an empty stomach.
- Change your routine: Many people drink when they’re bored, stressed or sad, Naidoo says. Before you reach for a drink, reflect on what’s prompting the urge. Then consider whether another activity could be a healthier alternative, whether it’s meditation, taking a brisk walk or calling a friend for support.
Bad habit: Not getting enough sleep
Why it’s dangerous: Lack of sleep has been linked to a raft of health problems including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, poor mental health and early death. Some studies have also shown people who get less sleep are at greater risk of cognitive decline.
The biological changes that come with age can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, but older adults should still aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night, says Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist.
How to stop:
- Refrain from napping, especially late in the day: A nap burns off the chemicals in your brain that tell you to go to sleep, says Bradley Vaughn, a sleep expert and professor of neurology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “An occasional nap here and there for 10 or 15 minutes is OK, but if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, get up and go for a walk during time when you normally nap,” he suggests.
- Consider your medications: Ask your doctor if a medication could be disrupting your sleep. “Try to make sure medicines that may be sedating are more loaded toward nighttime and medicines that are more alerting are more loaded toward the morning,” Vaughn says. “So many people take their water pill at night, and then they’re up seven times to pee. Of course they can’t sleep.”
- If you can’t sleep, get out of bed: If you wake during the night, don’t lie there feeling anxious. Instead, Breus recommends getting out of bed and writing in a journal or walking quietly around the house, keeping the lights dim. “Some light movement can help get you ready for sleep without giving you too much energy,” he says.
- Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: If you’re retired, you may not have a lot of structure to your day, but it’s still important to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day — even on weekends, Breus says. Avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol within four hours of bedtime. If you still suffer from insomnia, Breus recommends trying behavioral cognitive therapy first before turning to a sleep medication.
Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation's top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.