To change a habit, you need to understand how it became a habit in the first place. The 3 Rs of habit change are: Reminder, Routine, Reward.

Do you want to eat healthier or become more active? Are you having a hard time with changing your habits? Do you wonder if it is even possible to change? Although it is true that old habits die hard, you are never too out of shape, overweight or old to make positive health changes. 

Breaking bad habits and learning new ones is a process with several steps. Sometimes it can take a while for new habits to stick, and there are often roadblocks and setbacks to deal with.

Making the leap from thinking about making diet or exercise changes to taking action can be hard. There will be lots of excuses that can interfere with your plans, such as:

“I have no time to exercise.” It can be difficult to find time, but there are ways. You could get up a half hour earlier or sneak in some exercise by taking the stairs or going for a walk at lunch. If you want an exercise habit to stick, you must make it a priority.

“It costs too much to exercise or eat healthy.”  You don’t have to join a gym or eat only fresh organic foods. Walking is the best exercise, and it is free. There are lots of inexpensive healthy foods, such as canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, canned tuna, and whole grains.

“I have no motivation.”  Make a list, and keep it handy to remind yourself why you are making healthy changes. Your list might include to feel better, to look better, to reduce medicine use or to reduce disease risk.

To change a habit, you need to understand how it became a habit in the first place. The 3 Rs of habit change are:

1. Reminder. This is the trigger or initiating event that starts the habit. Study your current habits to determine what trigger is initiating the behavior. For example, mid-afternoon fatigue might trigger a daily sugary snack. Or a bad day at work might trigger a night of junk food and TV.

2. Routine. This is the action or habit itself. Instead of going for a snack, replace that behavior with a healthier option, such as going for a short walk. Visual reminders can help, especially with new routines. Try setting out your gym clothes before going to bed or having a healthy lunch packed and ready to go. 

3. Reward.  This is the benefit you receive from the habit. You were rewarded with the mid-afternoon sugary snack by getting an energy burst. You need to reward yourself for sticking to new habits as well. You might buy new workout gear if you’ve been consistently exercising, or treat yourself to an extra long hot bath after a stressful day. 

There’s a lot of truth to the saying “failing to plan is planning to fail.” Lack of preparation is the reason many diet and exercise plans fail. Make a menu or meal plan for the week, and shop for only those items. Try cooking in bulk so you just have to warm up a healthy meal. Schedule time for exercise, and treat it like any other appointment. 

It takes several weeks of consistent change to turn your new behaviors into habits that don’t require much thought.  Starting with small changes is more effective than changing everything at once. Work on replacing one bad habit at a time. Following are some easy things you can do to start today:

Drink a glass of water before every meal. Water helps you feel a little fuller, and you won’t be as tempted to eat past the point of hunger.

Eat one really healthy meal every day. Pick just one meal to change what you eat and make it as healthy as you can. Include lean protein, a serving of whole grain, and lots of fruits and vegetables.

Use your lunch hour to be active and burn a few calories. Take a walk or do some stretches or light exercises in your office. This will help burn off some stress as well, and you’ll feel better for the second half of your day.

Once a week, pick a challenging activity. Take a really long walk or bike ride. Learn a new exercise, or just spend extra time being active.

Instead of giving up all your favorite foods, just eat smaller portions. All or nothing diets rarely work. 

There are various apps for your phone that can help you stay accountable, provide reminders and positive reinforcement. Check out HabitBull, 21Habit and Momentum. Once you conquer one habit change, start on the next!

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.