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Barriers to weight loss Society & Environment

Can our habits lead to longer lasting change?

When we think about creating long-lasting change, we often believe that we need to change big things or cause drastic change in order to see a difference, setting ourselves very large goals. However, this is not always the case. Lots of very small decisions can grow into life-altering outcomes. After all, if we consider the things that we can control, habits can account for 40-50% of our behaviours.

5 min. read
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While this article focuses on the importance of habits in relation to behaviour change, it is very important to note that obesity is not solely caused by an individual’s behaviour. That said, we all have the opportunity every day to work towards our own behavioural, psychological and health goals. The key to ‘success’ is often considered as setting achievable, sustainable goals, which is also the case if living with a disease or condition, including obesity. Professional guidance in obesity talks about setting manageable goals that people can adhere to – goals that can have a positive impact on health, function and quality of life.

Firstly, what do we mean by ‘habits’?

Habits can be described as automatic actions, or routines, that we do each day without thinking in response to a specific situation. In other words, a habit can be predicted – it is something that we are going to do in the future based on what we have done in the past. This means that habits are personal to all of us. What is a ‘good habit’ for one person may be a ‘bad habit’ for another.

Common examples of habits could be picking up a mobile phone before realising we have, or turning on the TV as soon as we walk into a room. Larger examples could be how we take care of our family, our level of engagement with work, or our exercise routine.

Why do habits matter?

Habits are a gateway to our overall behaviour. In fact, so much of what we do in the long-term starts with a habit in the form of a triggering thought or action. If we think about the routine of going for a daily walk, for example, the behaviour can be broken down. It may start with the thought of going outside after making a morning coffee, or the act of putting on trainers immediately after walking through the door after work.

A well-known four-step model for behaviour helps to describe how habits work: cue, craving, response and reward. We respond to a cue in the environment, which could be via any human sense (although it’s most often visual); this triggers a craving, which is the motivation for us to act; we respond with an action, whether it is a thought or a physical act; then we are rewarded. Because of the way that humans are naturally wired through thousands of years of evolution, but are now (very recently) surrounded by modern-day luxuries such as fast technology and treats, we often seek short-term reward even though we know it may not benefit us in the long-term.

So, can habits lead to long-lasting behaviour change?

Yes. There are many stories of people around the world showing that success with long-term behaviour and reaching personal goals can be the product of daily habits and shaping our environment, as opposed to once-in-a-lifetime transformations.

The reasons for long-term success can be described as ‘marginal gains’ or ‘compound improvement’, which is a concept that is known across several fields such as business, economics and personal development, and is explained in the book The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. If we consider a small improvement of only 1% in a day, this is not notable as a ‘big change’ and often not even noticeable. But if we commit to that every day, the small improvement of 1% compounds over time and could result in approximately 37% improvement across just one year. We embed the habits over a long period of time and build them up further to achieve our goals – it’s a journey. As such, habits need to work for us and reflect our lives, to ensure that we do them. Because small actions each day, if we’re committed to stick to them, can be very meaningful in the long-term. 

How can we improve our habits?

Lessons from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear show several practical ways in which we can create better habits and avoid damaging habits to drive long-term behaviour change. There are four laws to behaviour change described – it’s about making the habits we want more obvious/visible, attractive, easy and satisfying to both increase the likelihood of doing the habit in the first place and increasing the chances of doing it again in the future. The opposite can be said for reducing habits that we do not want. Our brains can be rewired to automatically respond to a specific situation in a different way than we currently do, but it takes time and commitment every day.

How does this relate to obesity?

It should not be construed that better habits will solve the crisis of obesity, as this would be a misinterpretation. Obesity is a disease. It is caused by a complex interaction of many internal and external factors, many of which are beyond an individual’s control; biologically, some people are more likely to develop obesity than others. Obesity management therefore requires a holistic approach that addresses the biological, psychological and social needs in order to achieve better health. Addressing our habits can help to improve our own decisions and have confidence in how we ‘show up’ every day, to live a happier and healthier life. Whether we are referring to obesity, general health or personal development, lessons can be learned here in setting small and manageable goals that work for us.

And remember, with the compounding improvements of 1% better each day, we can create long-lasting change.

Read our other articles for information on the science of obesity.

  1. Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A Repeat Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198-202. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00435.x
  2. Vallis TM, Macklin D, Russell-Mayhew S. Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines: Effective Psychological and Behavioural Interventions in Obesity Management. Available from: https://obesitycanada.ca/guidelines/behavioural. Accessed March 2024.
  3. James Clear. How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick. Available at: https://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change. Accessed March 2024.
  4. James Clear. Marginal Gains: This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent. Available at: https://jamesclear.com/marginal-gains. Accessed March 2024.
  5. World Health Organization. Obesity and overweight. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight. Accessed March 2024.
  6. Tirthani E, Said MS, Rehman A. Genetics and obesity - statpearls - NCBI bookshelf. StatPearls Publishing; 2023. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK573068.


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