Your Brain on Habits

“Monday I will start” “I will pack only healthy food” “I will go for a walk tonight” …. Have you ever found yourself saying these things to yourself?  But instead, you fall into your regular routine or habits almost on autopilot and wonder why can’t you commit?

You have read, watched videos, talked to your doctor and you know what to do – Eat a balanced diet, drink more water, get adequate sleep and make sure to get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week.  It sounds like a no brainer and should be easy, but if it were, you would be doing it.

Change can be hard but new habits can be established.  You can blame your brain as it is likes to take the easy road.  Automatic behaviours drive half of our daily life.  Think about that for a moment.  How much do your habits or daily routines change day to day?  

A habit is any action, or sequence of actions, initiated by a cue, that gives a behavioural response which results in a reward, that our brain makes us believe it is desirable.

For example:

  • Cue: Waking up going into kitchen and seeing the coffee pot
  • Behavior: make and drink the coffee
  • Reward: feeling awake and more energized

(Fun fact.  Coffee is widely consumed, but not so much because of its natural flavour, as most people drown it in sugar or cream, but because of the habits associated around it.  Growing up you probably experienced many adults who couldn’t function without their morning coffee.  It is widely accepted, a social norm, in almost every workplace, and has even developed a trendy status with many coffee shops and drive thru restaurants.  Then of course, there is the chemical reaction it has on us from the caffeine and sugar – if added).

But back to the example above.  This daily habit or routine has been something you have repeated for a long time and it is done without even thinking about it.  This is a habit loop, just waking up triggers the cue.

Some habits are mundane with little reward and maybe easy to change, but others are more powerful and hard to change.  Chocolate, cheese, or social media have strong chemical reactions that make our brains feel good and are harder to change.

Think of it this way.  The brain sends feel-good messages along pathways.  As a habit keeps getting repeated it gets ingrained.   Think of a shortcut you may have taken on a walk off the main route.  It may be to a grocery store, or to your house through your yard or a favourite park.  Instead of taking the sidewalk that loops around the nice shrubbery to enter your location, you notice a break in the foliage and you take that shortcut.   More and more people see this and start doing the same thing.  It is now a clearly defined path or route.   This is the same for our brains, once a neural pathway for a habit is established, it becomes the default path to follow. 

Eventually, your habits become as automatic, as daily functions you do, without thinking about them.  Creating new habits can take time, but are achievable.  Think about COVID and how hard it was to get used to wearing masks.  I remember how uncomfortable and awkward it felt, along with being reminded to wear one.   But now it has become a habit and is easy to do.  I am sure many can relate to this.  

*DEEM Health is partnering with FuelLife Canada, for 2 upcoming events!  Mental health summit, March 18, 6-7:30pm, this event is FREE or by donation, with all proceeds going to Canadian Mental Health Association –  6 week virtual cooking show starting March 19th  7-8:30 pm, featuring cuisines around the world –  

*If this article or any past articles leaves you with questions, the want to be a better you, the courage to take the first step to a happier you, than please contact me at: 

Mikkie Nettles, Certified Personal Trainer/Holistic & Sports Nutritionist
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