Thinking back on my life, at my lean, physical best I followed a strict routine. I woke at the same time each day, met a friend to exercise, made the same breakfast each day to take to work, caught the train at the same time every day, ate breakfast before starting work, bought the same lunch from the same place at roughly the same time each day, ate an apple mid-afternoon, went to 3 yoga classes each week at the same time, used the same formula for dinner each night (no carbs at 5.00 pm) and on weekdays I went to bed at roughly at the same time. Boring maybe, but I was busy, and I thrived on the simplicity of these routine behaviours. These days, although my day to day routine is less rigid than it was back then, I still engage in most of these lifestyle behaviours and fit them into every life.
When I work with clients, they often start off with great excitement wanting to change everything, eat 5 serves of veg, walk 10,000 steps, meditate every day, cut down carbs, eliminate sugar, drink 2 litres of water, cut out alcohol and so on. The focus is on what to do rather than creating a well-structured daily routine to make space for these lifestyle improvements. Over time they realise too much change too soon can be overwhelming and hard to stick to.
The importance of establishing a routine
One of the greatest challenges in the treatment of lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity is sticking to a long-term lifestyle plan. The same applies to anyone who wants to improve their overall health. Unless you establish a routine and slowly incorporate lifestyle improvements, it will be hard to adhere to these behaviours throughout your life.
Routine is consistently found to be important for children. However, the importance of routine is not unique to children. Observational research indicates that individuals in good health engage in highly routine health behaviours. For example, those successful at maintaining weight loss often eat the same foods, engage in consistent exercise, and do not skip meals.
The time you rise in the morning and go to bed at night is a simple routine which in theory should be easy enough to follow. Easy as sounds, during these past 2 years of uncertainty and stay-at-home orders, many of us chose immediate gratification over long-term health improvements. Lockdown for some was like a wrecking ball for breaking routines. During times of uncertainty, and stress, when we don’t have to be anywhere, and our comfortable, easy routine is lost, the dopamine circuitry in our brain pushes us towards instant gratification. A glass or two of wine each night, binge-watching TV on demand, or getting lost down the social media rabbit hole are common instant-gratification fixes. We’re intuitively aware of the benefits of introducing a good routine into our life but the dopamine system in our brain gives us such instant gratification it can override the best intentions to go to bed early, get a good night’s sleep and wake up in time ready to exercise.
Habits vs Routine
Habits are associated with a cue. One of my clients, for example, decided to build a habit where she drinks a glass of water after each visit to the bathroom. The cue is going to the bathroom and the small action, to drink a glass of water, will ensure she stays hydrated, never confuses thirst for hunger and will almost certainly lead to eating less.
Routines don’t require conscious effort or thought but a structure must be developed where few decisions need to be made. My choice to eat the same breakfast and lunch each day took the decision of what to eat away, laying out my walking clothes before going to bed took the decision of what to wear in the morning away and committing to walking with a friend removed the choice of whether to get up or not.
The establishment of a routine for long-term adherence is more important than sticking rigidly to a plan in the short term. Equally important is factoring in disruptions to routine, like Covid, and now, hopefully, holidays. A holiday can completely disrupt a routine; what’s important is how to re-establish the routine when you return.
Establishing a routine that includes improved long term lifestyle choices must be realistic and fit into all the other commitments you have in your life. If you can’t do it all, don’t worry, small changes can have big results, so start with the routine and see what is achievable and realistic.
- Sit down and schedule what you must do each day and when these things must be done. Factor in some downtime for yourself to get a dopamine fix that won’t disrupt your long-term lifestyle plans, and then look at the time you’ve got left.
- Decide what time in the day you can exercise and schedule at least 25 minutes for some form of physical activity. Any exercise is better than none.
- Schedule time to plan your meals. It doesn’t matter if you eat the same for breakfast and lunch provided it’s nutritious. If you enjoy it, and the ingredients are easy to source and create a meal of, that’s totally fine.
- Consider what cues you can use to form a habit. Drinking water after going to the bathroom, eating an apple when you take the dog for an afternoon walk or drinking a glass of sparkling water when you make the evening dinner are all great.
If you would like some help in food planning and scheduling a routine, Judy is available for one-on-one coaching sessions. Click here for more information.