Building habits for better health

Jill Heath, PT, DPT

The new year brings a fresh start, a clean slate. To me, that feels exciting and I love to set new goals. Often, we take on goals to improve our health. But sometimes by mid-January, we are feeling discouraged if we aren’t changing much to reach our goals.  

The issue with health goals is that we have to adopt new habits to achieve them. We may have great intentions to get to the gym 4x a week, but if we haven’t reflected on why we haven’t done that before, the intention will wear off and we will be left with the same habits as 2019.  

That’s why we have to figure out how to build in healthy habits. As a physical therapist, I talk about this with all of my patients. Physical therapy is about your body learning how to move in different, better ways to reduce pain or immobility (if you missed my blog post about what is physical therapy, click here). In order to learn how to move differently, your nervous system needs frequent repetition to adopt new movement patterns. In other words, you need to do it repeatedly, or have a habit to do so. Most of my patients are busy moms, so they need habits that can fit easily into a busy lifestyle.  

Building new habits is different for all of us, depending on our personalities. I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s book, “Better than Before” where she dives deep into that topic (not a plug for her book, I just love to recommend it). Here are some of the top ways I’ve found have helped me, and my patients. 

1. Link a new habit to an established habit. What’s something that you already do everyday? Brush your teeth? Wait at the microwave for your coffee to warm up because your kids have been interrupting you all morning and you never finished it? Use that time to do something small - a set of squats with focus on good form, stretch your hip flexors, balance on one leg. Rather than flipping through Facebook again, do something good for your body.

2. Schedule it. This can be as rigid as your personality allows. For me, that’s pretty rigid, but for you it may look different. My exercise goal for 2020 is to regularly perform 4 different types of exercise. (Send me a message if you want to know why!) If I don’t plan then I automatically revert to what comes easiest. So, at the beginning of the week, I look at my schedule and figure out where I can fit in exercise into my busy week. I literally put it in my Google calendar. If yoga is on the calendar for Sunday at 9:30, it’s a lot harder to skip it. But figure out how it works for you.

3. Find accountability. If your goal is to walk more, find a neighbor to join you. For my patients, that accountability is me :-). They know I’ll be asking “how are your home exercises going?” at the next appointment. If you have tried “home exercises” that you found on Pinterest or Instagram and tried to self-diagnose your issue, and aren’t sure if it is helping, it is valuable to have an assessment by a PT. If you aren’t sure if PT is for you, send me a note and we can chat. 

4. Set reminders. Utilize the technology! After a workshop I taught recently, one of the participants set a timer for 2x/day to do diaphragmatic breathing for 2 minutes. She called it her “2x2” reminder. (Click here to learn the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing). I love that - and it worked for her. My current daily reminder is my bedtime timer. I’ll tell you, it’s harder to listen to than I thought. I’m pretty good at getting up on time, but struggle with going to bed at a good hour.  

5. Remember your “why”. Why did you set this goal? What will you feel/look like in 2021 if you stick to it? What would you feel like if you didn’t? Sometimes the goals are important, but daunting to take on by ourselves. If you’ve tried getting back into exercise but your body doesn’t feel quite right, seek out the help of a PT. If you’re in the Minneapolis area, send me a message! I’d love to talk about your goals and see if I can help you to reach them.  

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About the Author

Jill Heath is a licensed physical therapist and owner of She PT, LLC. She received a Doctorate of Physical Therapy and B.S. in Exercise Science from Northern Arizona University. During years of practice helping individuals of all ages recover from a variety of conditions, she developed a passion for working with women. She opened She PT, LLC with the purpose of meeting not only the unique physical needs of women, but also empowering women to take charge of their well-being by making care accessible.