Forming healthy habits

How to develop healthy habits in four key areas of your life

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 60% of deaths around the world can be linked to four things — cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and type 2 diabetes. What’s even more significant is that poor lifestyle choices are a key risk factor for these diseases. So if you can change bad habits, you may be able to reduce your risk.

In particular, the WHO points to the importance of these four habits :

  1. a healthy diet,
  2. physical activity,
  3. not smoking and
  4. limiting alcohol.

Here are some tips to help you form healthy habits in each.

Eat healthy

What exactly is “healthy eating”? Canada’s Food Guide offers the following guidelines:

  • Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and plant-based protein (legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu).
  • Replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat.
  • Make water your beverage of choice.
  • Choose processed and prepared foods less often.
  • Read food labels; be on the lookout for sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Of course, knowing what the guidelines are is one thing — following them is another. Here are some strategies to help with the habit formation process.

Make your home a safe zone. Stock your fridge and pantry with healthy choices rather than pop, chips and cookies. If it’s not at hand, you’re far less likely to eat it.

Get cooking. Prepared foods from the grocery store and fast food restaurants tend to be high in fat and sodium and low in nutrition. The more you can prepare your own meals, the better. If you’re pressed for time during the work week, try making larger quantities on the weekend and then freezing individual portions.

Knock the fat down a notch. Half of all Canadians consume more than the recommended amount of saturated fat. Common sources include cheeses, red meat, butter and hard margarine. Replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats, found in nuts, fish and plant-based foods like olive and vegetable oil, can reduce your risk of heart disease.

Get physical

Physical activity is important for everyone. For children, regular physical activity promotes strength, heart health and bone density. For seniors, it can improve bone density, balance, strength, coordination and flexibility. At any age, physical activity decreases stress, promotes good sleep and helps with maintaining a healthy weight.

Healthy activities include more than just working out at the gym. The key is to incorporate more movement into your daily life. For example:

Walk or bike instead of driving or taking transit. If you can’t make it the whole way, try at least to get off transit a stop earlier or park farther away from the entrance.

Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Even if it’s only for a floor or two, it can help.

Find your passion. For some, it’s recreational sports, like tennis or hockey. If you love the outdoors, you might gravitate to gardening or bird-watching. If you’re looking for an activity to help you de-stress, consider yoga or tai-chi. Joint problems? Hit the pool for swimming or aqua fitness.

Make it social. Everything is more fun with a buddy or two. Many towns and cities offer recreational sports and fitness classes at local high schools for a nominal fee. Or simply meet up with your BFF and hit the mall for a power stroll while you window shop.

Butt out

Smoking is a lot less socially acceptable than it used to be, but some 4.6 million Canadians still smoke daily or occasionally. More recently, vaping has come to the forefront as a new health risk, particularly among youth.

Whether it’s vaping or smoking, nicotine is addictive. The best way not to get hooked is never to start. And good news if you are a smoker, you’ll see immediate health benefits as soon as you quit. For example:

  • After 20 minutes — your blood pressure drops to a level similar to what it was before your last cigarette.
  • After 8 hours — the level of carbon monoxide in your blood drops to normal.
  • After 24 hours — your risk of having a heart attack starts to drop.
  • After 1 year — your added risk of coronary heart disease is half than that of a smoker’s.
  • After 5 years — you have the same chance of having a stroke as a non-smoker.
  • After 10 years — your chance of dying from lung cancer is much lower. So is your chance of getting cancer in your mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney and pancreas.
  • After 15 years — your risk of coronary heart disease is similar to that of a non-smoker.

If you’re ready to quit, talk to your doctor.

Use alcohol in moderation

Alcohol is a depressant that slows down your body’s central nervous system. While it can be beneficial in small amounts, excessive drinking can cause serious health problems.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse offers the following guidelines for safer drinking:

  • Limit your intake. For women, don’t exceed 10 drinks a week and no more than two drinks on most days. For men, the limit is 15 drinks a week and no more than 3 on most days.
  • Plan non-drinking days every week to avoid developing a habit.
  • Don’t drink at all if you are driving, operating machinery, taking medication that interacts with alcohol or pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Drink slowly — no more than two drinks in a three-hour span.
  • For every alcoholic drink, have a non-alcoholic one.
  • Eat before and while you are drinking.

How to make habits stick

Whether it’s drinking or your diet, it may seem challenging at first to build a habit. Like reaching any long-term goal, the key is to focus on one good habit at a time, take small steps in the right direction and look for support. From friends and family, to healthcare professionals to online chat groups, the help you need is all around you.

Sources

World Health Organization
Zen Habits
Canada’s Food Guide (pdf)
Government of Canada – “Physical activity and your health”
Government of Canada – “Physical activity”
University of Waterloo
National Institute of Drug Abuse
Government of Canada – “Benefits of quitting smoking”
Mayo Clinic
CCSA (pdf)
Government of Canada – “Canada’s Dietary Guidelines”