You know it's time. You've been steadily gaining weight over the years, and it's really starting to become a burden. You can't get into your jeans without doing the wiggle-jiggle dance. You're exhausted all the time and out of breath more often than you'd like to admit. Your cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure are climbing. You know you need to change, but you're struggling, and you're scared you'll end up on six different medications like your grandmother. Still, you just can't seem to make healthy habits stick. Sound familiar?
I know this dilemma very well. Back in college, as I was gaining more weight than ever before, I felt horrible, and I knew I needed to change. So I tried to develop healthy habits. I went to the gym a couple times per week for cardio and tried to eat salads for lunch. But even that became difficult to sustain.
I was stressed out with a heavy courseload and spent late nights writing papers, which meant late-night meals. The only food available during those hours was the deep-fried and delectable kind. Plus, I was a major stress eater. And while I tried to fit exercise into my schedule, class assignments and other responsibilities would get in the way. Inevitably, I had to make a decision about what to prioritize. Of course, my education won out.
I wasn't simply lazy or unmotivated, and neither are you. I was merely trying to navigate a hectic life and survive each day. Adopting healthy habits can be challenging, especially when you have so many other responsibilities getting in the way. You're trying, yet you feel like a failure, but this is the furthest thing from the truth. You aren't a failure; you're simply human.
Creating new habits and adopting a healthy lifestyle change is neurological. Changes also need to happen in your brain to successfully change your behavior. It's known as neuroplasticity. Your brain is constantly evolving in response to your experiences. When your brain encounters something new, it begins mapping out that new thing, creating new connections between brain cells (neurons).
However, this process takes time when it comes to building healthy habits. For a new behavior to become second-hand, the connections between neurons must be strengthened repeatedly. Over time, this ingrains a map in your brain that translates into a consistent habit. This is why you struggle to pick up a new habit when you first try. You have to perform the task consistently to etch the pattern in your brain. This is how learning happens. You can have the best intentions for yourself, but your brain still needs to get on board.
You're also struggling against the fact that your unhealthy habits are already deeply ingrained. Do you remember the first time you decided to have your regular afternoon chocolate bar? Probably not. But you've done it enough times for it to become second nature to you. You do it without even thinking because you've created and constantly reinforced this pattern in your brain.
All of the little habits that you do regularly, both the unhealthy and healthy ones, may come naturally to you now, but these are things that you once had to learn. Think about the struggles of potty training a child, for example - it's always a battle at first! Eventually, though, it becomes a habit. No effort, no need to seek motivation from the depths of your soul. You just do it.
Adopting healthy lifestyle habits requires the same effort. If you aren't accustomed to eating vegetables with your meals, it isn't going to come to you overnight. You're going to do it a couple of times, forget a few days in a row, become too busy to head to the supermarket, and fall right back into your old habits. And that's just fine! Be compassionate with yourself and understand that what you're going through is a process. This process is not meant to be linear. You aren't a failure; you're simply human.
Developing strategies for jumping back on the wagon helps keep you consistent long enough to cement those new neuronal connections in your brain. But you can't let a misstep or two make you give up entirely. You're training your brain, so you have to keep trying again and again until your brain gets the message. Eventually, you'll be eating vegetables with every meal without thinking twice.
In his fantastic book Atomic Habits, author James Clear provides some valuable tips for developing habits that stick. One of my favorite tools is habit stacking. Habit stacking involves tying the habit you're trying to create to a habit you've already mastered. For example, let's say you're trying to do ten push-ups every day. If you set the goal "I will do ten push-ups right before I brush my teeth in the morning," you've combined a new habit with an old one, making it more likely that it will stick.
You aren't going to be perfect, so don't try to be. Try to be consistent, instead. Most importantly, do not beat yourself up whenever you slip up. Don't allow a misstep to make you feel like you're simply a failure. You're still in control. Just keep taking steps forward, and eventually, your brain will catch up.
Niv Mullings is a Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness coach from the Bronx, New York. After years of struggling with obesity, anxiety, depression, painful menstruation, and other chronic health complaints, Niv changed her life for the better through fitness and a healthy plant-based diet. Now she helps others to do the same.