New Year, Younger You: Using Neuroscience to Build Age-Reversal Habits
New Years resolutions typically stick as well as deciding to start that new habit on any given Monday, which is to say, about a week. Some people last a month or more, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who kept their resolutions long enough to make them into meaningful lifestyle changes.
Any change, resolutions included, based on sheer willpower are destined to fail. Willpower takes a lot of energy, and we humans get decision fatigue pretty quickly. One long day at work and we’re diving face first into delivery pizza instead of a rejuvenating workout and protein-focused meal.
Can you break this trend to make real change in the new year? Yes, you can! The new year really does act as a powerful motivator, and you can use it as a springboard to build healthy habits that will propel you far into the future, but you have to be smart about it. You’re not going to change all of your habits overnight, so taking small steps and shifting your identity around your goals will help you to create lasting change.
Even if you missed the first of the year, or you’ve already fallen off the wagon, TODAY can be your new year, and you can celebrate this being the day you changed your life for the better. We’re going to discuss neuroscience-based ways to change your habits, and some of the practices you can adopt that will help you feel stronger, smarter, and more energetic through this year and beyond.
Your Aspirational Identity
Our interests, habits, and daily actions are a reflection of our personal identities. Our self-perception guides the ways we spend our time and energy, which is how we develop habits that seem to take no effort, both the ones we like and the ones we don’t like. Understanding this concept allows us to build healthy habits from the inside out. The first step to creating rock-solid habits is to intentionally create your aspirational identity, the best version of yourself that you envision.
For instance, if you identify as an athlete, the best version you envision could be a CrossFit competitor. Embracing this aspirational identity will serve to reinforce healthy habits. When you ask yourself, "What would an athlete do?" the behaviors that comprise an athlete's lifestyle can become more cohesive and automatic, helping you make better decisions in your daily life.
In this way, it takes no willpower to go to the gym on schedule, or to make healthy and protein packed meals. It’s automatic because it aligns with your chosen identity. On the other hand, if you identify as someone “trying to get in shape”, you’ll always be trying, and it will always be more of a struggle since you’ll be making decisions from the experience of your past self, not the aspiration of your future.
The Power of Small Beginnings
When you're creating new habits, it's essential to start with small, manageable steps. Small habits that are specific and attainable provide the greatest return on investment because they require only modest mental focus and physical energy, and they provide fairly immediate rewards. Starting with simple actions that take only 30 seconds to 2 minutes will improve your chances of sticking with them over the long term.
For example, instead of aiming to practice yoga for 30 minutes each day, start by practicing for just five minutes a day. If you want to do 100 pushups every day, start with 5, or even just 1 if you haven’t done any in a few years. Once you've successfully stuck with this smaller habit for a couple of weeks, you can gradually increase the duration. This approach reduces the friction associated with habit formation, making consistency and repetition easier.
The Role of Consistency in Forming Habit Loops
Habits are not linear behavior patterns. Instead, each habit you create is a loop: A cue triggers you to respond by taking a specific action, which promotes a reward. The reward triggers a release of dopamine in your brain, providing positive reinforcement and training your brain to engage in that particular habit.
You probably already have a few of these and you don’t even realize it. For example, when was the last time you went to the bathroom and you DIDN’T pull out your phone to check social media? Some people have a habit of working later into the evening then unwinding with a drink while they watch TV. These are some less-than-ideal habits, but you can build healthier ones.
To strengthen the neural patterns associated with a habit, consistency and repetition are key. For instance, if you want to form a habit of daily meditation, you might set a cue like a specific time of day or a push notification on your phone. If the idea of meditating is a mental struggle for you, you can pair it with a habit like making herbal tea, or lighting incense, and for bonus points, setting your phone to silent so you can enjoy a few moments of uninterrupted quiet time.
This works for workouts as well, and is especially effective when one habit in the loop is a reward. Maybe you stack a good workout with a strawberry protein shake that tastes like ice cream, or pairing your morning coffee with 10 minutes to practice a new language.
Layering and Compounding Healthy Habits
Creating new healthy habits is great, but doing it strategically — in ways that link the habits to give you even more “bang for your buck” — is even better. You can create a synergistic effect by stacking habits, where one habit intensifies the benefits of the other habit, and vice versa.
An example of this is breaking your daily fast with a protein-rich smoothie after a moderate-to-vigorous exercise session. The smoothie serves as a reward for undertaking the act of exercise, thus reinforcing your activity habit. Meanwhile, the timing of the smoothie helps to replenish glycogen stores and synthesize protein, speeding up your recovery and preparing you for your next workout. If you’re hardcore, you can add an ice bath, breathwork, and sauna into that habit stack. You can stack your supplements with a habit of having daily meals, and even stack a mobility routine after your daily shower so you’re already warm and more flexible.
Stress: Reactivity and Resilience
Stress can affect your ability to adopt and maintain healthy behaviors. Your mental, emotional, and physical health can be impacted both by external stressors, such as job chaos or the death of a loved one, and by the subjective experience of stress. Uncontrolled stress can lead to negative health outcomes, including cardiovascular and metabolic challenges among others.
People vary in their levels of stress reactivity; that is, their mental, emotional, and physical reactions to stress. These differences can explain why stress affects some people’s health behaviors more than others. Minimizing stress reactivity and increasing the ability to cope and adapt under stressful situations can make a difference in health outcomes.
Proactively seek out ways to become more resilient against stress. You know that chaos is bound to happen, so have a plan for what you’ll do when the insanity strikes. Consider yoga and meditation, mindfulness and present moment awareness, art or coloring book pages, or even an extra challenging workout.
The Power of Social Support
Social networks and relationships play a significant role in shaping health behaviors, for good or for ill, literally. For example, older adults with strong social ties, such as being married, living with a partner, or having a group of close friends, are more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors such as staying active and eating mindfully. Those with fewer social ties tend to have less mindful eating habits, become sedentary, and choose fewer engaging activities. If you’re looking to eat healthier or become more physically active, it may be worth asking your spouse or friend to do it with you.
Tips to Help Sustain Behavior Change
- Practice envisioning the future: As you make decisions in everyday life, be aware of how your behavior may be driven by wanting what feels good now versus what your future self will wish you had valued.
- Manage stress: Stress can affect your ability to adopt healthy behaviors, such as physical activity or healthy eating.
- Beware of avoidance: If you have a chronic condition, you may become hyper-aware of your body and start worrying that every sensation signals catastrophe. If you are medically cleared to exercise, it’s important to recognize that the bodily sensations associated with being active may be amplified by fear, but most do not indicate any real health problem.
Looking to the Future: What’s Next in Research
There is still a lot to learn about behavior change interventions and how they work. Scientists continue to explore these areas to help people better adopt and maintain healthy behaviors. The ultimate goal is to develop effective interventions that work consistently, leading to improved individual and community health.
Habits are a way to automate specific actions of daily living, making them easier to accomplish. However, the fact that they become automatic means that they take considerable time and intentionality to develop. By embracing your aspirational identity, starting small, being consistent, layering habits, understanding stress reactivity, leveraging social support, and following tips to sustain behavior change, you're on your way to building, stacking, and integrating healthy habits that will extend and improve your life.
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