21 Days to a Healthy Habit

Whether you're trying to eat better, be more active, or quit smoking, experts say that the first 21 days can be the toughest. Here's how to stick with your goal.

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Sometimes, to improve your health, your doctor may recommend making changes to your diet, quitting smoking, becoming more active, or making other lifestyle changes. But breaking up is hard to do—especially when it comes to unhealthy habits. "The first few weeks of trying to break a bad habit or start a new, healthy one are the hardest," says G. Alan Marlatt, PhD, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. "You'll likely encounter temptations, but some strategies can help you cope with any such urges." The good news: If you get through those weeks, the new mind-set becomes easier to maintain. Here are seven ways to help you reach 21 days.

1. Jot in a journal.
You can keep track of your progress, monitor any backsliding, and identify situations that may cause you to give in to temptation.

2. Set small steps.
Instead of attempting a wholesale, huge life change, aim only for one behavior at a time. Break your goal down into smaller parts. "For example, if your goal is to lose weight and you didn't reach your goal of lost pounds in a few weeks, think about the health benefits of the weight you did lose."

3. Surf your urges.
The compulsion to light up another cigarette or toss down a bag of chips has often been described as a wave. It builds and builds, potentially threatening to wash away your newfound resolve like a tsunami. Marlatt's solution: surfing. "Imagine the urge is a wave, and as you feel it build, close your eyes and pay attention to your breathing," he says. "Picture yourself on a surfboard riding the wave and the desire will subside."

4. Don't trust willpower.
Maybe you've had a couple of weeks with newfound willpower. "Even if you think you can slide back into a behavior and put the brakes on whenever you want, It doesn't work like that. Keep yourself out of situations that could make you more likely to backslide."

5. Defuse triggers.
With help from your journal, you might be able to identify triggers that may lead to old behavior. Some triggers may include being around others who are engaging in the activity you wish to stop, or it could be stress or negative emotions that may lead you to smoke or overeat. "Try using calming efforts such as meditation or yoga to cope with triggers," Marlatt says.

6. Try, try, try…again.
There's a difference between a "lapse" and a relapse. A lapse is a slight slip; a relapse is becoming entirely entrenched in your old behavior. "About 80% of people have lapses," he says. "You're up against formidable odds, but the good news is that if you keep trying and learn from mistakes, you'll get better as you go along."

7. Prepare for the next hurdle.
While those first few weeks may be the toughest, Marlatt says the first three months are the trial period that'll test how well you avoid the urges. "Rely on your journal to show you what triggers the behavior you want to change," he says. "Changing a habit is like learning how to play piano or speak a foreign language. Learn from mistakes so that next time that situation occurs, you'll know how to deal with it."

For more healthy eating tips and healthy recipes, visit www.eatbetteramerica.com.

* Three grams of soluble fiber daily from whole grain oat foods, like Cheerios cereal, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Cheerios cereal provides 1 gram per serving.

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