Creating good habits


When it comes to our health, we all have bad habits, whether it involves snacking at a certain time of day, drinking too much, smoking, or even habitually spending too much time in front of a screen.

But just as it is easy to fall into unhealthy ways, it is also possible to create new habits which will have a positive impact on our physical and mental health.

According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes between 18 and 254 days for a person to form a new habit and just 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic.

So while it is beneficial to start healthy exercise habits such as the Daily Mile school’s initiative from Athletics Ireland, from a young age, sports, and exercise psychologist, Canice Kennedy, says it is never too late.

“The three pillars of a healthy life are sleep, diet and exercise and parents should be educating their kids from early age on their importance,” he says. “I think it is crucial for parents to get the message across that not only is it good for our health, but it is also good fun.

“There are many reasons why it is better to start young, and aside from the physical aspects, another important factor is socialisation and making friends which we may keep for life. But while it is harder to try and develop an exercise habit as an adult, it is, of course, possible. And if someone has good intentions they can start with the minimum of 30 minutes, three times a week and work up to five times weekly – over time this will become something they automatically do as part of their daily routine.”

The Cork-based expert says walking, cycling, and running along our riverbanks, canal towpaths and woodlands, along with swimming, either outdoors or in a swimming pool, are some of the best exercises which people, particularly parents can do with their children to create habits which will hopefully last a lifetime.

“Getting out and about in some of the beautiful locations around the country is a fantastic habit for people to develop,” he says. “There is too much emphasis on winning in sport and exercise and I think this is what traditionally put a lot of people off when they were growing up – and even today, many teenagers, particularly girls, give up a sport they enjoy as they don’t like the competitive element.

“So if parents had this experience when they were young, they need to try and develop a more positive attitude around their children. Sport shouldn’t be something they just drop their kids off to and come back an hour later – there should be plenty of active family activities such as walking together on the weekend, going for a cycle or a run or going for a swim - even going to watch a match is a good positive activity for families to do together.

“I also think that Ireland is too focused on GAA, soccer and rugby and not enough on things like triathlon, tennis, badminton, and basketball. So we need to put more of an effort into a broader approach to sport and exercise and encourage kids away from the computer and out into the fresh air, everyone will benefit from it.”

Sometimes we all need a bit of encouragement to get out and about, particularly as the weather becomes more unpredictable and Kennedy says advance planning is key.

“If we do something once a day for 28 days in a row or three times a week for several weeks, it will become a habit,” he says. “So my advice would be to put a time in the diary, each day, or every couple of days, to ensure it becomes part of the regular routine. I would also encourage getting a friend or partner to join you as that way, you will be letting someone down if you don’t participate, so you are more likely to stay focused.

“The past year and a half saw most of us working from home and one of the upsides of that is that people had time to get out and about for fresh air. Being in the house all day made them realise that they needed to get away from their computer to give themselves a mental break and get some physical activity and this has helped many people to form a habit and a love of the outdoors that they may not previously have had.

“So my advice would be for parents to start enjoying exercise with their kids from an early age and keep it going. And if someone is looking to start forming a habit later on, just get out there and do it. It may be a little more difficult to start from scratch, but the very act of getting out and about is fun and enjoyable and a great thing for everyone, whatever their age.”

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