Additional Habit Advisories

New York Times wellness columnist and editor Tara Parker-Pope poses the question: “So why is it so hard to form new healthy habits?”

The previous Childhood Obesity News post mentioned the importance of the mind in any effort to improve habits. But like many issues, this one has two sides. For some of us, all the time, and for all of us some of the time, our minds do too much of the wrong thing. Parker-Pope writes,

We make bold resolutions to start exercising or lose weight, for example, without taking the steps needed to set ourselves up for success.

Motivation is all well and good, but often it simply isn’t enough to make something happen or guarantee that it will continue to happen. It is too easy to congratulate ourselves over good resolutions, and then sort of let the performance aspect slide. So here are five helpful hints, and don’t be surprised if they sound familiar.

1. Stack your habits

One idea is to “stack” your habits. Link something new and useful with something you already know you’re going to do, like having morning coffee. This can go along with another precept, which is to start small. (Again, it’s the “baby steps” paradigm.)

2. Start small

Parker-Pope cites the example of Dr. Fogg and his pushups. Most people enjoy their morning bladder-emptying, so there is a positive experience that a nascent habit can be stacked or linked with. In this case, it would be doing two pushups immediately after visiting the restroom. This was also starting small, because eventually he was doing at least 40, and sometimes as many as 80, pushups every morning.

3. Do it every day

Establishing a habit might take not many days, or it might require, as one study demonstrated, as many as 254 days. The median amount of time, 66 days, has been a convenient number for people to cite when discussing this subject.

4. Make it easy

Research psychologist Wendy Wood used this method to propel herself out the door in the morning, reasoning that if she slept in her running outfit, it should be very easy to wake up, put on her sneakers, and just head on out. Or, if you are the type who goes to a gym, have your gear packed up and stationed at the door, ready for you to grab it and hit the road. Parker-Pope summarizes a section of Dr. Wood’s book about habit formation:

In one study, researchers changed the timing of elevator doors so that workers had to wait nearly half a minute for the doors to close. (Normally the doors closed after 10 seconds.)

It was just enough of a delay that it convinced many people that taking the stairs was easier than waiting for the elevator. “It shows how sensitive we are to small friction in our environment,” said Dr. Wood. “Just slowing down the elevator got people to take the stairs, and they stuck with it even after the elevator went back to normal timing.”

5. Reward yourself

With some goals, like weight loss, positive reinforcement does not come along very quickly, so we reward ourselves as we go along. This is what some express as temptation bundling, or pairing the beneficial routine that you hope to reinforce, with an activity that is fun, or at least pleasant.

We will have a bit more to say about oft-repeated suggestions next time.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “How to Build Healthy Habits,”, 06/07/21
Image by Dean Jarvey/CC BY 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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