How Habits Govern Our Health and Lifestyle

Are individuals diligent about checking their stove before leaving home or heading straight to their toothbrushes even in the groggy early morning hours? It's safe to say that most people do. Initially, missing these habits occasionally is common, but eventually, everyone incorporates them into their daily routine.

Habits can be defined as repetitive actions that occur almost automatically in response to specific situations or cues. They are triggered by certain conditions or cues associated with particular activities in the brain.

But why do habits exist?

You may have heard of dopamine, the pleasure hormone. When a person completes an activity or achieves a milestone, their body releases dopamine, which gives them a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. These dopamine releases are linked to external rewards such as money, appreciation, or food and beverages, making individuals more inclined to repeat the task.

By leveraging this phenomenon, people can positively associate activities with rewards, helping them stay consistent with these activities. This process is known as positive reinforcement, and it leads to the formation of habits.

When a specific activity is completed, dopamine is released in a part of the brain called the Basal ganglia, which is responsible for selecting appropriate responses in particular situations. Based on past experiences, the Basal ganglia releases dopamine when the same situation arises, making the activity more automatic with repetition.

Are habits good or bad?

Habits are the foundation of our lifestyle. Waking up, going for a run, or smoking a cigarette are personal choices, but they become habits associated with specific cues, such as waking up, and have differing consequences for our health.

Whether a habit is considered good or bad is subjective and depends on the outcome of that particular habit. By understanding how habits form, we can tap into the neural mechanisms behind them and exert greater control over our lives.

According to James Clear, author of the bestselling book Atomic Habits, habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.

Developing habits helps reduce the cognitive and physical burden of consciously choosing a course of action in response to a cue. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman refers to this as the law of least effort. It suggests that people tend to choose the path of least resistance, both cognitively and physically, when there are multiple ways to achieve a goal. By cultivating good habits, you can alleviate the cognitive load of making the right choices for your health.

Is it easy to form and change habits?

Essentially, there are two types of habits: passive and active. Passive habits are adaptations of the body to external conditions or triggers. For example, mountain trekkers' bodies adapt to low atmospheric oxygen levels at high altitudes to perform regular bodily functions. Another example is opening a computer or switching to YouTube to find specific informational content but then getting hooked on entertainment videos.

Active habits, on the other hand, are deliberately incorporated into routines to achieve specific outcomes. Examples include going for a 10-minute walk after a meal, practicing breathing exercises for 5 minutes in the morning, or reading a few pages of a book before bed for personal well-being.

However, forming habits is not as simple as it may seem. Contrary to the popular belief that it takes 21 days to build a habit, a study conducted in 2009 by Lally et al. found that it takes approximately 66 days or ten weeks to develop a habit. Consistent practice of an activity is necessary for it to become an integral part of one's daily routine.

To replace an existing habit, one must recognize that humans tend to prefer immediate rewards over delayed rewards, especially as the decision-making moment approaches. This tendency is known as hyperbolic discounting. Due to hyperbolic discounting, it can be challenging to form new habits that require conscious effort compared to existing habits that demand less effort.

Hence, multiple factors influence the process of building new habits or changing existing ones.

According to Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, one effective way to change a habit is by maintaining the same cue and reward while modifying the routine associated with it.

For example, if you wish to reduce caffeine consumption and your current routine involves waking up every day and having a coffee while listening to your favorite podcast (the reward), you can alter the habit by waking up (the cue) and having a fruit juice while listening to the podcast (the reward). In this way, the cue and reward remain consistent, but the habit aligns with your goals.

The Relationship Between Medicine and Habits

Many people are unaware of how medications work and the importance of adhering to prescribed regimens to maintain appropriate drug levels in the body. Understanding the significance of taking medication on time is crucial, as non-adherence leads to approximately 125,000 deaths annually in the United States alone. Non-compliance can result in reduced drug efficacy and potential side effects.

Technology and Coaching Strategies to Improve Adherence

Advancements in technology have greatly assisted in addressing non-adherence in patients. Today, various tools and strategies are used to enhance medication adherence. Digital healthcare tools such as mHealth and telehealth enable a better understanding of patients' behavioral patterns regarding medication intake. Reminders and notifications have become more accessible due to the widespread use of modern healthcare tools.

Additional strategies, including inclusive diagnosis processes and activities like competitions and reward programs, have been employed to improve patient adherence through positive reinforcement.

Finding the Union Set: A Crucial Step

Understanding the reasons behind the low success rate in forming good habits is essential, as they can vary for each individual. Healthcare professionals often face challenges in helping patients develop good habits due to limited interaction opportunities, potential sensitivities, and a lack of habit-tracking capabilities. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze other barriers that affect habit formation.

Achieving a union set that combines positive reinforcement, reducing friction in habit formation, and appropriate coaching to identify and reach desired goals is crucial. In a word, finding the union set can be life-changing.


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