We’ve all been there. You decide to lose 5 pounds. You grit your teeth and vow to cut out sweets. You keep it up for about a week. And then you have a stressful meeting at work. Frazzled, you find the candy bar stashed in your desk drawer and scarf it down! Your plan is out the window, so what difference will a few more snacks make? Soon enough, you’re back to where you started.
It’s hard enough to motivate yourself to adopt a healthy habit or drop an unhealthy one. Staying motivated can be even harder. Scientists think that’s partly because some of these healthy habits may actually work against our instincts and biology. One example: We’re wired to survive in tough times, evolving to prefer high-calorie foods when food could be hard to come by.
Today, “our environment is overly saturated with food, which means our system is tempted and stimulated too often,” says Gorica Petrovich, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College.
Luckily, humans have also evolved to exercise goal-setting and willpower. We caught up with experts in psychology and neuroscience, who offered science-backed strategies for getting and staying motivated to live healthier.
Before you start
- Choose to change: While support from your social peers does play a role, research shows that people who set goals for their own reasons – not because of pressure from a doctor or a spouse, for instance – are more likely to succeed. Before you start, “pay real attention to why you’re even considering doing this,” says Edward Deci, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “Is it truly and deeply and honestly something that you value?” If the answer is no, achieving your goal will likely be much harder.
- Picture your ideal self: Tory Higgins, PhD, a psychology professor at Columbia University, has found that thinking of your goal makes people more motivated to change. Higgins suggests focusing on all the benefits you would enjoy, like how much stronger and more energetic you would feel if you hit the gym three times a week. “Think in terms of how it makes a better you,” Higgins says.
- Expect the first steps to be hardest. As with any new habit, expect an uphill battle in the beginning. But have patience, and eventually your body will get used to the new routine, says Michelle Wirth, PhD, now a research coordinator at Horizon Education Alliance. Give yourself a little extra incentive, like having your favorite smoothie after you finish your jog. After a while, hitting the trails at dawn will feel like clockwork.
Plan for success
- Work with your internal clock. Do your 7:30 am gym plans almost always fall through, no matter how hard you try? Blame your body’s internal clock. If yours is somewhat shorter than 24 hours, you’re probably a morning lark, and if it’s a bit longer, you’re likely a night owl. In general, you can’t transition between the two. If you can’t make the morning work, try an afternoon run or post-dinner walk instead.
- Avoid your triggers. Petrovich’s research has found that training rats with a trigger, like a tone of sound, can make rats binge on food every time they hear it. So walking past a fast food place or snagging a fry from your friend’s order could be enough to trigger your own cravings. Try to think about your routines: Do you get hungry at 3pm and raid the vending machine? Keep healthy snacks on hand instead.
- Make the healthy choice the easy choice. To eat more veggies, keep them on hand and visible so you can reach for them whenever your stomach starts growling. Otherwise, you’ll likely struggle to force them down. As any serial snacker knows, when we’re sated, we tend to seek sweeter, more palatable food – not steamed broccoli. Same goes for walking — build it into your commute so it’s hard to avoid.
- Hack your craving circuitry. Studies have linked gambling and excessive gaming to a higher release of dopamine, which triggers a surge of pleasure — the so-called “gambler’s high.” Something similar might happen with fitness apps that track steps taken or calories burned, says Wirth. The competition and game mechanics can keep some people hooked or push them to go that extra mile.
- Plan for stress. As Petrovich and other scientists have shown, our brains are programmed to give into cravings under stress. Eating comfort foods releases dopamine, the “feel-good hormone,” so stress-eating helps us feel better. But dopamine has also been linked to an increase in cravings. To deal with stress, create an action plan, Wirth suggests. Call a friend, drink water, take a quick walk outside, or try some of these two-minute stress relievers.
Once you get going
Switch to a "should" mindset: When you think of a goal as something you want to do, it can help you get motivated. But thinking of it as something you should do — the so-called prevention state — can also help maintain motivation. For some, imagining your ideal self can highlight how far you still have to go, which may make you more likely to give up. If a promotion-focused strategy isn’t working for you, try switching to a prevention mindset by telling yourself, “I made a promise” or “I owe it to myself and my family,” Higgins suggests.
- Know when to press pause: A bit about the brain: Our higher thinking mainly happens in the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain. Our more “primitive” drives like appetite and pleasure mainly happen in the reward system deep inside the brain. This system reacts faster than the cortex. That means even if your cortex knows those chips aren’t good for you, your primitive brain has already urged you to scarf them down. When making decisions, pause for a minute or two to give your cortex time to engage.
- Keep it interesting. Research by Carol Sansone, PhD, a professor of social psychology at the University of Utah, found that if subjects didn’t enjoy or have interest in a task, they had difficulty sticking with it over time. Makes perfect sense. In the context of fitness, that means figuring out what keeps you engaged, Sansone says. Use your elliptical workout as an opportunity to catch up on your latest bingeworthy TV show, or exercise with friends. Change up your running route. For a challenge, sign up for a race.
- Treat yourself every now and then. When studying learning, Sansone has found that breaks might delay when you reach your long-term goal, but may make you more likely to stay motivated. In other words, if you want to make a sustained lifestyle change, rest and cheat days might help you stay the course. Just try not to ditch your healthy lifestyle multiple days in a row — habits will generally not be affected by one missed opportunity, but any more than that and you may find yourself in trouble.
- Be patient. Turning a behavior into a habit — something you do routinely and nearly involuntarily — takes time and persistence. When we do a movement, a brain region called the motor cortex “teaches” a system called the basal ganglia how to coordinate the right muscles, explains Wirth. It takes many, many repetitions before the motor cortex can essentially press “go” and the basal ganglia will know what to do, like autopilot. Remember how many times it took before you learned how to tie your shoe? “It’s really the same thing for any habit,” Wirth says.
- Don’t worry if you fall off the horse. Things will happen. Rather than guiltily obsess over how you skipped out on SoulCycle and instead finished that entire tub of Rocky Road, move on and focus on the long-term. Ask yourself how you’ve been eating the past three months. “Eating a tub of ice cream — while it makes you sick that night — is not going to fundamentally change your health,” Sansone says. “Really, for health, what we’re talking about is sustained lifestyle changes.”
Originally published in July, 2016. Updated in January, 2021.