6 simple tips for easy, healthy habits

Maurice Beer M.D.
June 17th, 2021 · 9 min read
Medically Verified

In this article:

  • Choosing which healthy habits to adopt can make it difficult to get started
  • What happens in your brain when you practice a habit?
  • Lacking good habits can lead to health risks like hormone imbalances
  • Hormone blood tests and saliva tests can help you choose healthier habits
  • Healthy habits have many benefits
  • Six tips for building healthy habits
You’ve heard the old adage that “you are what you eat.” Well, it’s also true that you are what you sleep, exercise, meditate, and more. A good chunk of your health is determined by your daily habits, so adopting healthier routines is a great way to improve your well being. But it can be really difficult to change a habit because of what goes on in your brain. Read on to learn how to hack into this system and set yourself up for healthy habit success.


  • Your daily life is made up of hundreds of routines that you perform without much thought because of how the brain learns habits.
  • Bad habits around eating, exercise, sleep, and more can cause hormone imbalances that may lead to health issues.
  • Habits are very hard to change but you can make progress by starting simple, using a habit tracker, and measuring your progress with at-home blood tests and saliva tests.

Choosing which healthy habits to adopt can make it difficult to get started

“Always work out until you hit your target heart rate… Actually, do small bursts of exercise throughout the day… Hit the weights before cardio… Actually, get cardio done before strength training…” Sound familiar? When it comes to exercise, eating, and a host of other health-related issues, it might seem like the wisdom is constantly changing.
That’s partly because scientific understanding is evolving. It’s also because everyone’s body is unique (which is why hormone blood tests are useful for understanding your particular needs). Even if you’re practically an expert on your body, it’s tough to know what’s best when you are bombarded with biased wellness marketing. Stir in the constant stream of noise from social media and self-help websites and you have a recipe for utter confusion. And it’s not like we get much professional help in this department. When’s the last time you went to the doctor and she asked you about your daily habits?
It’s no surprise if you’re finding it difficult to even identify what habits would be “good” for you. And even if you have an idea, those fresh veggies might be difficult to access, your job schedule might prevent you from hitting that HIIT class, or you might be so booked up with obligations that you lose sleep to revenge bedtime procrastination. Despite all these obstacles, a better understanding of what happens in your brain when you practice habits can help you navigate this confusing territory.

What happens in your brain when you practice a habit?

Do you remember the first time you drove to a new job? You might have driven slowly as you carefully followed directions and turned down the radio while looking for the final turnoff. But after driving there for a few weeks you could do it without thought, even with that K-pop blasting. The habit became easy — and you probably didn’t even consciously work on it.
You have hundreds of habits that you practice every day without even realizing it, from the choreographed ritual you perform in the shower to the automatic splash of cream you pour into your coffee. Understanding how these habits became ingrained can help you develop new healthy ones.
You’ve probably heard of the old psychology experiment of Pavlov’s dogs that demonstrated classical conditioning. Dogs naturally produce saliva when they are eating food. Soon their brains learn to salivate when there’s a cue that food is coming soon, like when they hear a bell that always rings before feeding time. And after that is ingrained, dogs will salivate just when they hear the bell, even if there’s no food.
Humans can be conditioned in this same way (and we’re not talking about learning to salivate, although that will be useful when you want to track some biomarkers with saliva tests). After a few weeks of driving to your new job, your brain activates the “navigate to work” habit as soon as you turn your ignition key. (The automatic nature is responsible for the embarrassing accident of starting your route to work on a day off when you meant to drive to the beach.)
The explanation for Pavlov’s dogs salivating and you ending up at work without even thinking about it is a three-part habit loop. First is the cue — the bell or the ignition in your car. Second is the habit — the salivation or the driving to work. And finally there is the reward — the tasty dog food or the arrival at work (and yes, even if you’re not crazy about your job, it is a “reward” because it’s what you meant to accomplish).
This three-part loop happens in a different part of the brain than where decision-making happens. That’s why you can perform these habits without thinking about them. And that’s why certain bad habits become so ingrained that it seems impossible to merely decide your way out of them. The great news is that you can “Pavlov” your bad habits into new healthy habits. Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks like going to sleep on time or exercising regularly. But first, let’s examine why we should even care about having healthy habits.

Lacking good habits can lead to health risks like hormone imbalances

When it comes to things like sleep, diet, and exercise, an ingrained “bad” habit or a lack of consistency can be detrimental to your health. It’s not just the mental anguish of feeling like you failed again — your body’s hormones can literally go out of whack.
Consider the example of sleep. Your body regulates sleep by releasing hormones such as melatonin and cortisol to make you drowsy or wake you up. If you lack a consistent habit for sleeping, your hormones will be unpredictable. You may find yourself in a melatonin fog during that 9am Zoom meeting or you may end up counting sheep all night because your body is hyped up on cortisol. It’s nearly impossible to decide to be awake or asleep; your brain is basically a Pavlovian dog that has become confused by hearing random bells at all times of day.
Similar disruptions can happen with hormones that regulate all kinds of bodily functions leading to symptoms like unexplained weight gain, fatigue, low sex drive, and more. It can be difficult to get medical help for these symptoms because it is usually unclear what’s causing them. But you can do your own hormone sleuthing…

Hormone blood tests and saliva tests can help you choose healthier habits

At-home blood tests or saliva tests can help you identify where you might have hormone imbalances. If you find your cortisol levels are out of whack, some better habits around stress management might be in order. You can take blood tests for hormones like Vitamin D and HBA1c levels to see if those might be causing feelings like brain fog that you could remedy with better diet habits.
A lot of these imbalances not only cause physical symptoms but can also contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety. When your mental health is struggling it can seem even more daunting to start a new healthy habit, but you may feel encouraged after learning about the huge upside of healthy habits…

Healthy habits have many benefits

Healthy habits in areas such as eating, exercise, or even simply taking medication on time can help prevent diseases. As an example, Type 2 Diabetes is the result of our body being conditioned to certain eating habits. In simple terms, if you habitually consume a lot of sugar, your body will learn to become insulin resistant, which can lead to diabetes. Adopting healthier habits around sugar intake will not only reduce the sugar input — it will help rewire your body’s response to sugar. And that in turn will reduce your cravings for sugar, making it easier to stick to a new low-sugar habit.
What’s more, that positive feedback loop isn’t limited to the physical reactions of your body. When a healthy habit starts making you feel better, you’ll realize you’re on a roll and be more apt to continue on. It will also boost your self-identity as you now recognize that you actually are the type of person who can choose the hard-boiled egg over the jelly donut (more on that later).

Six tips for building healthy habits

If every February you find yourself lamenting a bunch of failed New Year’s resolutions, it’s probably because you tried to use willpower alone. Well, this time you’re going to use science.
We’ve already seen how the three-part loop has created your current habits. Your best bet for adopting a new healthy habit is to keep the first part (the cue) and the third part (the reward) and change the second part, swapping an unhealthy habit for a new healthy one.
As an example, maybe you want to reduce your sugar intake. First, identify one of the habitual sources of sugar in your diet. Maybe your current habit is to grab a soda from the vending machine at the end of the work day to drink on your drive home. The cue is the end of the work day and the reward is enjoying a beverage on the drive home. Now we need to swap out the habit (the soda) for something with less sugar.
The swap is more likely to be successful when following these tips:
  1. Commit to one change only. Trying to adjust more than one habit at a time will overwhelm you and set you up for failure. Even though the example goal is to reduce sugar overall, the habit of that one particular soda is all that is being changed, not the entire diet. If you’re trying to exercise more, don’t sign up for a marathon — commit to one habit like walking from the far end of the parking lot. A better sleep schedule can be started with one habit like powering down your devices at a certain hour.
  2. Make the change as easy as possible. For our soda example, is there a healthier beverage in the vending machine you could choose instead? If not, is there a workplace fridge where you can stockpile some of your own sparkling waters? Don’t aim for something complicated like driving to a new location to buy a drink. And don’t stretch too far with something drastic like giving up the enjoyment of a beverage altogether.
  3. Use a simple habit tracker. James Clear recommends something easy like marking dots on a calendar or printable tracker whenever you perform your new habit. Besides serving as a reminder to act, marking a “done” every day is a mini reward that will help to motivate you, especially when you see a streak starting to form (hello, momentum).
  4. Never miss your habit twice in a row. Listen, you might occasionally hit the wrong vending machine button (wink, wink) and find a sugary soda in your cup holder. When you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up — that’s normal and sometimes unavoidable. But decades of psychological research show that “mere repetition of a simple action in a consistent context leads to the action being activated.” In other words, make darn sure to hit your habit the next day so you can still benefit from that Pavlovian magic. As each day goes by the habit will become more and more automatic. And being consistent not only strengthens the conditioning of the habit but it also creates motivating momentum.
  5. Measure your progress with at-home biomarker tests. As you rack up dots on your habit tracker, check in with your body to confirm that changes are happening. It can take a long time for certain habits to produce effects like weight loss or reduced stress that are noticeable from the outside. But changes can be seen sooner in your biomarkers, which will help keep you motivated. There are at-home blood tests and saliva tests that can help you see progress in the areas of diet, sleep, stress, energy, and more.
  6. Congratulate yourself on your progress. Take time to admire the streak on your habit tracker, the changes in your biomarkers, and especially the way your body is feeling. Not only will this be a reinforcing reward, but it will help you shape your new self-identity. Yes, you are someone who is good at avoiding the after-work soda. That might seem like a minor win, but it will start to erase the picture you have of yourself as someone who always consumes sugar (or sleeps poorly, or avoids workouts). And eventually that will lead you to believe that you are someone who can achieve even bigger goals and tackle new habits.
Habits are difficult to change, but it is worth the effort for the sake of your health. As Michelle Obama once pointed out, your current habits are creating your current outcome. So if you want to improve your health, “practice who you want to be, every single day.”

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