repeat pattern of brains

Why changing habits feels so hard and why that's a good thing

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Changing bad habits can feel difficult – but this feeling is actually a good thing and can help you achieve your fitness goals. Our Head Strong columnist Kimberley Wilson explains…

Motivation may be a great tool for getting you started in your journey towards your fitness goal, but it’s liable to fall short before getting to your final destination. Nowhere is this better illustrated than at New Year’s. The 2nd of February has (rather uncharitably) been dubbed by fitness app Strava as ‘Quitter’s Day’, as they claim it’s the day when those who have made new (particularly health-based) resolutions are most likely to quit. Data from health insurer Bupa also reports that 66% of UK adults broke their New Year’s resolutions within a month or less. My guess it that these people aren’t suffering from a lack of motivation; they just overestimated the power of motivation to propel them to their goal.

When motivation doesn’t work, there’s more that you can do to strengthen your resolve: conserve brain energy. Here’s why…

ENERGY & THE BRAIN

The first thing you need to know is that your brain uses up a disproportionate amount of energy for its size. Although it accounts for only about 2% of your total body weight it uses up around 20-25% of your energy when your body is at rest. So, your brain is incredibly hungry but, unlike the rest of your body, it doesn’t have the means to store energy; it needs a constant supply of energy to work well. 

This means your brain is very sensitive to energy demands and it is always trying to find ways to save energy. But here’s the thing: any kind of new skill or habit you want to adopt, whether that’s learning French or taking up Tango, requires the development of new neural pathways in your brain. It’s like laying down new train track to get to a different part of town – you need the materials (nutrients), a skilled crew (healthy brain cells) and energy to make it happen. 

There are two important takeaways here:

1. Your brain will resist investing energy in these new pathways. It will try to fall back on the tracks that are already available, ie your old habits. Falling back into your old ways doesn’t mean that you don’t want it enough or that you lack will power; it’s just your brain trying to save energy.

2. The energy it takes to lay down new tracks is what is perceived psychologically as ‘effort’. This means that the point at which you start to feel that you are having to try with that French revision is the point at which your brain is changing. Effort is what it feels like when your brain is getting stronger.

When trying to achieve fitness goals, people often get stuck when feelings of effort are thought of as something negative. There’s a misconception that if you want something badly enough, then the change will come easily to you  – that the universe will fall into place without you having to really try. So when things get tough, you might interpret this effort as a sign that things are wrong or that you are not up to it, and this is where motivation begins to fail. However, if you understand effort as the hallmark of change then it becomes a positive signal that you are heading in the right direction.

Importantly, there are a couple of caveats to this principle. First, there is a threshold. After a certain point, extensive effort becomes stress and excessive stress is harmful to the brain and body. Secondly, adequate rest is an essential feature of the system. Rest and sleep both prime the brain for effort (learning) and help to consolidate the new information.

How does this information influence how you think about change? First of all, it should make you more resilient to the vicissitudes to motivation. You know motivation will wane (that’s just biology) so you’ll need to put something more reliable in place in order to have a fighting chance of overcoming your brain’s inbuilt desire to stay exactly the same. In addition, arming yourself with the knowledge of what laying down new pathways in your brain feels like will make you tougher. You will be less likely to be discouraged, instead understanding the experience of effort as a positive signal, that things are changing and you have, in fact, got this.

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IMAGE: Getty 

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Kimberley Wilson

Chartered psychologist Kimberley Wilson is our Head Strong columnist, one of our resident experts from the Strong Women Collective and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain. She’s passionate about caring for our mental health through evidence-based nutrition and psychological therapy – and loves discussing how you can train your mindset to become stronger in body and mind.

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