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Well-being depends on developing healthy physical, mental fitness habits

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March 19, 2024
By Bill Howatt

(Prostock-studio/Adobe Stock)

Your little choices become habits that affect the bigger decisions you make in life. ― Elizabeth George

Well-being implies you are in a positive state of physical and mental health where you wake up feeling good and confident you can function to your potential in your work and home lives. The World Health Organization suggests good mental health is when you can cope with everyday life stresses, work productively, and realize your potential.

Wanting to live your best life and doing it are not the same. Living your best life requires good physical and mental health. Mental fitness is the practice of micro-skills with the intention that they become daily (i.e., non-negotiable like walking 10,000 steps) or on-demand habits (i.e., leverage cognitive hygiene in times of stress) that promote physical and mental health.

Mental fitness is grounded in developing intrapersonal knowledge and skills to establish unconscious prosocial habits that promote well-being and longevity. Unconscious means these habits are effortless to engage in and are a part of the daily routine, like brushing one’s teeth.


My approach to teaching organizations how to support employees’ mental fitness development is to anchor that it is shaped by employees’ education (what they learn and habits they master), experiences, and environment. Mental fitness promotes employees’ resiliency and involves the system in which they operate.

Employers motivated to facilitate a resilient workforce must understand and accept that the workplace environment can positively or negatively impact employees’ well-being. Employers who care about their workforces want to reduce drains and increase charges. Mental fitness is a protective factor for promoting psychologically safe and inclusive workplaces.

Tips for developing a new habit

Shaping Human Behaviour: Taming the Complexity of Simple states that knowledge and information are not the challenges most of the time regarding behavioural change and creating new habits. They are the lack of structure and support to help people develop new habits. Mental health information is useless unless it is leveraged and becomes a habit.

Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do). — Stephen R. Covey

Knowing what is good for you is useless if you’re not doing it. I recall a conversation with a peer about a micro-skill I published in The Globe and Mail that went something like this. “Bill, I read your micro-skill on a plan to make happiness happen. Not sure it will work.” I said, “Interesting. What are you doing daily to add positive emotion and joy to your life?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “Nothing, because there is nothing to be happy about.”

This and many other conversations over my career have taught me that many people wait for happiness to find them rather than understanding that it’s not what we know, think, or feel that defines our mental health. It’s what we do. If the chap I was talking to had practiced the micro-skill for elements for 90 days, he would have been in a better place than he was.

There are no magic pills, shortcuts, or one-and-done solutions for improving mental health and well-being. Living our best life requires energy to drive the habits needed to develop and maintain physical and mental fitness.

Employees who want to live their best lives and develop the necessary habits need environmental supports to encourage them. A challenge seen in my 35-plus years of helping clients who claim they want to change and get well is that they do not understand that changing and creating new habits takes time and is never easy or automatic. Some habits may be good for us but not fun or easy. But who says getting what we want is supposed to be easy? Well-being is not a guarantee. Without health, we have nothing, so investing in it is a wise choice.

Research suggests that a micro-skill typically takes 18 to 254 days to become automatic and habitual. The median time is 66 days. Most habits take longer than desired, but models and techniques can be leveraged to move a behaviour from conscious to unconscious, where the desired habit becomes automatic.

Three-step model for creating healthy, life-long habits

A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time. — Mark Twain

The following is a three-step model that can help a person understand the process of developing a new habit. Tips like grit, self-determination, willpower, and conscious focus are practiced with each step to move habits along the continuum until a new habit becomes automatic and unconscious. Creating mental fitness means developing automatic habits in every dimension, as each dimension influences well-being. No dimension is more important than another; they all are equal. However, not all micro-skills and habits are equal. For example, the most critical micro-skills are sleep, hydration, oxygen, nutrition, movement, and authentic connections.

Step 1Identify: pick a desired habit, follow a slow and steady approach, and set realistic expectations.

When developing any new habit, set realistic expectations and try not to take on too much at once. Focus on converting one or two micro-skills into habits at a time. I often tell my clients to go slow and that less is more. For example, trying to improve sleep, diet, hydration, and exercise habits at one time is too much. It is more prudent to be aware of gaps, pick one or two, and focus on them until they are installed as habits within your daily routine, meaning you do not need to strain to do them. They become a part of your daily routine as you know their value.

All people are the same; only their habits differ. — Confucius

Success is simple for new habit development. Start small and focus on simple. BJ Fogg’s research suggests that significant behavioural change requires high motivation and support. Because of this demand, failure is more common than success. Fogg promotes starting with small demands that are easy to do and layering them into your day.

For example, if you want to increase your oxygen level and get to the daily practice of three sets of 30 deep breaths, that takes only about eight minutes. To build this habit, start slow, taking three deep breaths each time you want to take a mini-break in the bathroom, look away from your computer, or get up and walk to another room. This approach is simple for layering in a new habit. By the end of the day, you lay the foundation for adding deep breathing to your daily routine.

The goal for all successful habit development is for the target behaviour to become an automatic habit within your daily routine. When learning any new habit, focus on practicing and adding it before trying to increase duration and intensity levels. Human behaviour is motivated and influenced by pain and pleasure. Being intentional and making new habits easy, enjoyable, and simple increases the feeling of success and joy.

Many people start attending gyms in January and go only once or twice because they hurt themselves or do not perceive the experience as easy or enjoyable. A person who wants to increase their fitness level will have more success by starting with walking and a simple home functional exercise program that is gradual and progressive.

Creating new habits is not a race. It is a lifestyle decision that helps you live your best life. James Clear suggests focusing on small gains when developing a new habit. He promotes looking to improve in one-percent increments. He rationalizes that small gains add up quickly, as do one-percent declines like engaging in poor habits. Night snacking to cope with stress is a poor habit that can negatively impact health within a few months. Ninety days of night snacking can result in consuming more calories than those being burned.

One pound is 3,500 calories. If you burn 2,000 calories a day and take in 3,500, you will put on about three pounds a week, 12 a month, and 36 in three months. One eight-ounce bag of chips is 1,242 calories, a night snack above and beyond the calories taken in through daily meals.

There is value in buying into the notion that mastering new well-being habits is not a sprint; it is a lifelong journey. Going slowly and focusing on the long game creates the mindset of simple expectations for each habit. An old habit and competing priorities can challenge some people trying to develop a new habit. Go slow and focus on one or two habits at a time. Small change builds motivation and confidence in achieving desired habits to live your best life.

Step 2 — Practice and log daily: Break targeted habits into small pieces, and when possible, anchor new habits to existing habits, schedule them, and log daily progress.

When engaging in new habit development, break the goal into small, manageable pieces. The more a new habit feels effortless, the more opportunity for success that can fuel motivation to stick with it and gain confidence that it is not hard and is manageable to add to your daily routine. People often forget that learning a new habit takes energy, and we only have so much energy, so use it wisely.

For example, you decide to improve your physical health dimension and want to increase your daily movement. Your baseline is 4,500 steps a day, and you set the goal of at least 10,000 steps. The gap of 5,500 steps is a big one to close in one day. The average person can walk about 1,000 steps in 10 minutes, so walking an extra 10 minutes every day for two weeks can move your daily total from 4,500 to 10,000. This will improve your physical fitness level and provide a sense of accomplishment.

Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” — Jim Rohn

Schedule your daily habit practice to move from focusing on what you want to do to when you will do it, like walking for 15 minutes after lunch to take an extra 1,500 steps. Structure and scheduling help make developing a habit a priority. It is also beneficial to log your daily progress using a step counter. Regardless of the micro-skill you’re practicing to turn into a habit, record your progress daily. See Six Daily Habits for an example to practice and promote mental health.

Add variability by changing your schedule. For example, the 15-minute walk does not need to be at the same time every day. Varying the time can train your brain to be flexible when the environment changes your schedule. Too many people get locked into a habit at a set time, like walking early in the morning, and if the weather is bad, no walking is done. Build in flexibility and understand that a part of habit development is accepting that life has volatility and schedules change. So can habit practice.

Another helpful tactic is to anchor a new habit to an existing one. For example, increase your daily steps with your 10-minute walk by parking farther from your office. Since you are used to walking from the parking lot to the office, parking a bit farther away can increase your daily steps without feeling you are doing anything significantly different. In this case, making two micro-changes and being patient and consistent can increase your daily step count in a month. The next step is to move the 10 minutes to 20 minutes of parking lot steps. You will be much closer to your 10,000 steps a day goal in a short time without much pain or strain. A habit can become automatic and layered into your daily routine by slow, steady progression and follow-through.

Another technique to avoid friction in developing a new habit is to look for innovative ways to layer in fun. Based on research, adding fun increases the likelihood of habit adherence. Human nature too often is to look for quick results, but habits take time, and fun can make the process more tolerable. Fun is subjective and can be as simple as adding a distraction, like watching a favourite TV show while getting steps in on a treadmill. The pleasure of the TV show can create fun and enjoyment while walking, and three techniques increase daily steps without much effort.

Another helpful strategy to layer fun is recruiting an accountability partner. Making your habits public with someone you trust cares about your health and with whom you report your progress allows for feedback and a laugh about the good and challenging parts. Research suggests that building social support and engaging others in your goals help hold you accountable and encourage you to follow through with increased adherence and habit development. Research has found that spending time with people who are aligned with your values and who want the same habits helps make habit development contagious.

Accountability tracking is beneficial when building and reinforcing habits to record and report daily progress to accountability partners. Examples include using a Fitbit to track daily steps and recording in a daily journal the number of deep breaths taken and the effort put into your mental fitness habits.

When developing new habits, it is critical to recognize that you are human and not perfect, and slips may happen. When you slip, adopt the rule that you will not miss more than three days in a row. This can help keep new habits in play and lower the risk of old, less-effective habits becoming the norm. Illness and injuries are exceptions to the rule. Focus on healing and then refocus to get back on track.

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” — Malcolm Gladwell

Step 3Celebrate: Enjoy the journey and celebrate and enjoy rewards along the way to reinforce habits.

Perhaps the most important part about creating a personal mental fitness plan is knowing the habits you choose will define the quality of your life and health. Because habit development is not a race, celebrate and create rewards. For example, if you report to an accountability partner every Friday on your nutrition habit success, allow yourself a cheat meal once a week. The cheat meal period can be set from 5:00 to 7:00 Friday evening to eat whatever you want as a reward for eating healthy all week. Some may wish to do this more than others.

The point is to be aware that developing habits that do not bring value or some pleasure seldom stick. Willpower is never enough for long-term habit change. Creating new patterns and routines requires being mindful of what you are doing and paying attention to the goal of living your best life.

Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.” — Robert Collier

Rewarding yourself is an integral part of habit development. Notice the behaviours that increase the opportunity for rewards. For example, good hygiene increases the likelihood of intimacy. Thus, if you enjoy intimacy with your partner, good hygiene benefits your physical health and sex life. The challenge with habit development is it often takes more work to start than to stop habits. People frequently stop and slip back into old habits because they lose their focus on the goal of living their best lives.

Setting milestones and celebrating after one month, six months, and 12 months is a positive approach to keeping the habits you want front and centre in your mental fitness plan.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.

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