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Breaking Unhealthy Habits

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If you took a poll asking folks if they could cease indulging their unhealthy habits, I suspect the response would be largely in favor, but the question is: How?

Joining me again today is Mihaela Vincze, the public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, and she’s been working up some strategies for breaking unhealthy habits. You’ve got my attention. But first Mihaela, how do these unhealthy routines evolve in the first place?

Mihaela: Great question, Al! The human brain is wired to create routines and habits. Behaviors that trigger the reward centers in our brain, as well as the repetition of a specific behavior, can solidify an unhealthy habit in your routine. Just remember, unhealthy habits are learned behaviors, and you can change or unlearn them.

Al: That makes perfect sense, and especially during the lockdowns, some people have been caught in the repetition of unhealthy habits even more so than normal— whatever “normal” passes for these days. But now that infection rates are thankfully receding and states begin to open back up, do you have any methods for how people can ditch these unhealthy habits permanently?

Mihaela: Yes. According to experts at Harvard Medical School, identifying the Three R’s is a good first step to kicking unhealthy habits-- that is the Reminder, the Routine, and the Reward.

Al: The only three R’s that I’m familiar with would be Reading, ‘Rriting, & ‘Rithmatic. All kidding aside, would you please walk us through each of the Three R’s?

Mihaela: Absolutely. The Reminder is anything that might trigger an unhealthy habit--let’s say, passing the donut shop every day on your way to work. The Routine is the habit itself, such as stopping at the donut shop every day. The

Reward is the benefit you receive from this action--for instance, eating a delicious donut daily.

Al: So, to break an unhealthy habit, we need to identify what triggers the routine. Well, how do you recommend staying on track to break the habit?

Mihaela: Identifying what establishes the routine itself is an important part of changing it. Two helpful strategies for breaking unhealthy habits are focusing on why you want to change and starting small.

Al: I get it…baby steps initially. I can work with that--because when you think of it, breaking an unhealthy habit can seem overwhelming. In my case, kicking the cigarette habit (years ago I might add), I just focused on eliminating situational occurrences such as not smoking in the car, home, etc. This enabled me to string days into a week then into a month, etc. So, starting off small really can help achieve the larger and then your ultimate goal in the long run.

Mihaela: That’s right. In the example we talked about earlier, that person could start out small by making it a goal to stop at the donut shop only on Friday’s. That way, they are easing out of the routine and working towards breaking the unhealthy habit.

Al: Taking small steps, or in your example “small bites,” may help motivate you to stay consistent and ultimately successful! So Mihaela, any additional advice for those out there having a hard time sticking to their goals?

Mihaela: Getting support from friends or family is incredibly important when trying to break an unhealthy habit. If you’re having trouble sticking to your goals, seek support from those around you.

Al: Absolutely. Any final thoughts you’d like to share before we conclude?

Mihaela: The experts at the Mayo Clinic share insights for breaking an unhealthy habit at mayoclinic.org/change-an-unhealthy-habit-yes-you-can-heres-how. Also, remember that you can always change your goals to make them more realistic for you.

Al: Mihaela, always a pleasure to have you onboard and thanks again for your insights. You’ve been tuned to another episode of ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.

Until the next time, this is Al Waller on WYPR, your NPR news station.

Thanks for listening.

Clearpath is paid for by the Transamerica Institute.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.