Key takeaways
  • Minor daily routines can significantly impact overall health and happiness when consistently practiced
  • Understanding and adjusting the cues, routines, and rewards is essential for effectively changing habits
  • A comprehensive approach to health that includes nutrition, exercise, stress management, and adequate sleep is vital for long-term well-being

Let's face it: the idea of daily routines and healthy habits often conjures up images of 5:00am jogs and kale smoothies. But what if I told you that these routines are less about torturing yourself with leafy greens and more about setting the stage for a life that's not just healthier, but also happier and more productive? Yes, even with the occasional chocolate indulgence.

What makes these daily practices so significant? Think of them as your personal life hacks. They're not just activities; they're your secret weapons. These are the small, seemingly insignificant choices you make every day, like opting for herbal tea instead of a coffee or spending time reading a book or engaging in a hobby instead of screen time. They might not sound like much, but over time, they add up to a big difference in your health and well-being.

The magic of these routines lies in their simplicity and the compound effect they have. It's not about overhauling your life overnight. Instead, it's about those tiny tweaks that, when added together, can transform you into a more energised, focused, and healthier version of yourself.

In this article, I'll get into the nitty-gritty of why these small habits can have such a big impact. I'll explore the science (without the snooze factor), and give you practical tips to build routines and healthy habits into your day.

Small habits: big impact

Daily routines and healthy habits can have a significant impact on your health because they compound over time. Each healthy choice you make, no matter how small, contributes to incremental improvements in your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Consistently choosing a nutritious meal, for example, adds up to a sustained improvement in your diet. Regular exercise, even in short bursts, enhances cardiovascular health and muscle strength. These habits also foster discipline and mindfulness, which positively affect mental health.

Over time, these small actions create a ripple effect, leading to substantial and lasting health benefits. Essentially, it's the repeated, consistent practice of these habits that drives meaningful change in your overall health.

Functional medicine encourages patients to take an active role in their health by embracing daily routines and healthy habits as powerful tools for achieving and maintaining optimal well-being. It seeks to address the root causes of health issues rather than just treating symptoms. For this reason, daily routines and healthy habits play a pivotal role in unlocking optimal health by creating a foundation for overall well-being and addressing the underlying issues that lead to chronic health problems.

Daily routines and healthy habits, such as the food we eat, the quality of sleep we get, the amount of physical activity we do and our daily stress levels, significantly impact our inflammatory response. Adopting routines that prioritise these core foundations of health can reduce the likelihood of developing health complications such as autoimmune diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, heart disease, and hormonal and gut imbalances.

Habits are fundamental to human behaviour and ingrained in our daily lives. Habits are how you perform tasks like brushing your teeth or tying your shoelace without conscious thought. Habits form in the brain through various brain regions and complex neural pathways. Understanding the science behind habit formation sheds light on how these automatic behaviours develop and persist.

The habit loop: Cue, routine, reward

You may have heard of the concept of the habit loop. It consists of three key elements: a cue that triggers the behaviour, the routine itself, and the reward that follows. I find this framework helpful for assisting patients understand how their habits are formed and maintained.

Here’s the three elements explained in a bit more detail:

  1. Cue (or trigger): This is the starting point, the signal that tells your brain to shift into autopilot and perform a specific habit. Cues can be external, like the time of day, or internal, such as an emotion or mood
  2. Routine: This is the actual behaviour that follows the cue, your habitual response to the trigger. It could be reaching for a snack when stressed, hitting the gym after work, or biting your nails when nervous
  3. Reward: After the routine, a reward is the payoff for completing the habit loop. Your brain associates this reward with the behaviour and uses it to reinforce the habit. The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine kicks in, creating a pleasure sensation

When working with a patient, Lisa,  who wanted to start creating a new habit of mindful breathing, we first identified how many times per day and how long Lisa wanted to spend in mindful breath work each day. The goal was then set to start with three sessions of one minute of mindful breathing (or three rounds of the 4-7-8 breathing technique).

First she set up a cue; Lisa identified that she ate three main meals a day, and that these were usually rushed and she was always distracted by her phone while eating. So step 1 was to set her mealtimes up as the cue. The next step was to implement the routine; Lisa established that before each meal she would set her phone down in another room and then complete three rounds of 4-7-8 breathing before taking her first mouthful. Lisa could then enjoy her reward, which was a sense of calm and mindfulness allowing her to slow down and enjoy being present while eating her meals throughout the day and achieving her goal of completing three breathwork sessions each day.

The habit loop is not the only factor that impacts your ability to create or change habits. Other key factors contribute to this process:

  • Dopamine: (the brain's pleasure and reward neurotransmitter, which plays a pivotal role in habit formation). When a habit is associated with a reward, the brain releases dopamine, making you feel good and reinforcing the habit loop
  • Neuroplasticity: (the brain's ability to rewire itself based on experiences). Habit formation hinges on this adaptability. As you repeat a habit, the neural pathways associated with it become more efficient and firmly connected
  • Time and repetition: Habit formation is not instantaneous; it's a process. Studies suggest that, on average, it takes about 66 days for a behaviour to become a habit. However, this duration can vary significantly from person to person and depends on factors like the complexity of the habit and individual differences

Understanding this process can empower you to break unwanted habits or create healthier ones. By identifying and modifying the cues, routines, or rewards linked to a habit, you can reshape the neural pathways and establish new, positive behaviours in their place.

"If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead"

James Clear - Atomic Habits

The impact of daily routines on health

Daily routines are the foundation upon which we create our lives, think of them like your internal GPS (Global Positioning System). They provide structure, predictability, and a sense of purpose to our days. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, stress management, and sufficient sleep are the scenic stops throughout the daily journey that ensure your life doesn’t turn into a stress-filled superhighway.  These healthy habits are critical to boost our energy levels, mood, and mental clarity, creating stability that can calm our minds, reducing stress and promoting mental well-being.

Alongside routines, is our body's internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, body temperature, hormone release, and various physiological and behavioural processes over 24 hours. There are connections between our circadian rhythm and daily habits; the most visible is the sleep-wake cycle. Going to bed and waking up at the same time daily helps synchronise our circadian rhythm.

Our daily routines, whether conscious or unconscious, are repeated daily behaviours and  have the ability to improve our health and therefore creating healthy habits such as establishing a consistent sleep routine, eating meals at consistent times, scheduling regular physical activity and including consistent relaxation techniques all help promote overall well-being.

One of the MFM team's favourite books, Atomic Habits, by James Clear offers insights into the science of habit formation. To start on the journey of building and maintaining healthy habits, it's crucial to follow a strategic approach, just like creating a road map if you were taking a long, unfamiliar drive. The Habit Loop, as discussed, consisting of cue, routine, and reward, provides a conceptual foundation. Begin by identifying a cue that triggers the desired behaviour, crafting a routine to align with it, and rewarding yourself meaningfully.

Starting small is key; break down large goals into manageable, bite-sized actions to make the process less daunting. Establish a clear plan by incorporating the chosen habit into a routine with specific times and places. Accountability becomes a powerful ally – share your goals with friends, family, or a support group for encouragement and oversight.

Consistency, the main ingredient of habit formation, involves daily practice to become embedded into your daily life. Anticipate obstacles, strategise solutions, and celebrate small victories to stay motivated. Finally, adapt and evolve the plan as you progress, ensuring it remains flexible and aligned with life's changes. This comprehensive approach forms the blueprint for achieving and sustaining healthy habits.

If we look back at the example of Lisa using the cue, routine, and reward habit loop to help her establish a new goal,  we can then take this further to help understand how this habit can be maintained. With the assistance of a health coach, Lisa was able to set a small mindfulness goal and was supported to break the goal into small manageable actions, leaning on existing routines to help build new healthy routines.

In the following coaching calls, Lisa was held accountable to her goal, was able to celebrate her success and was given space to overcome obstacles. After spending a week working on her new habit it was identified that dinner was the most challenging meal to achieve her goal. Lisa had a family with young children who made her feel rushed and she would often forget to complete her breathwork at this time of day. Lisa was then able to adapt her goal and moved her third breathing session to the end of her work day. By moving and adapting her goal Lisa established habits that were meaningful and achievable to her.

The role of nutrition and exercise

When we consider the foundations of health, nutrition and exercise play a significant role and are essential to incorporate into our daily routines. Nutrition is the foundational building block for our bodies,  nurturing our cognitive, mood and emotional stability. A balanced diet, rich in wholefoods, proteins and healthy fats nourishes our bodies, providing the energy and essential nutrients needed to function at our best.

Exercise serves as the maintenance crew for our bodies, keeping our cardiovascular system strong, muscles engaged, and mood lifted. Beyond the physical benefits, exercise is a powerful tool for stress reduction, anxiety management, and emotional well-being.

These daily practices enhance our physical health and contribute to emotional and mental well-being. The food that we eat and the way we move our bodies give us the opportunity to invest in our long-term health and lay the groundwork for a more vibrant and fulfilling life.

To make this investment in our health consider the habit change steps discussed earlier in this article to incorporate these critical foundations into your daily routine. Start with baby steps:

  • Gradually changing your diet and activity levels
  • Scheduling time for meal planning and preparation and eating meals and workouts, just like you would schedule an appointment, ensures they become a priority
  • Finding a support system or like-minded friends and experimenting with new foods, recipes, or exercise routines can motivate you

Remembering that the goal is balance, not perfection, is critical to staying committed while enjoying life's pleasures.

The role of stress management and mindfulness

Our bodies are designed to withstand acute or “short-term” stress that are often associated with immediate threats or challenges. In these situations, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol surge, sharpening focus, increasing energy, and enhancing physical abilities to tackle the imminent challenge. The body efficiently redirects resources to vital functions, enabling swift reactions. The goal is that once the stressor dissipates, the body returns to a state of equilibrium. Short bursts of this stress response are adaptive, helping humans navigate their environment successfully.

However, the challenge lies in the modern world where chronic stressors, such as work pressures or ongoing life difficulties, can trigger the stress response persistently, this can affect various physiological and psychological processes, potentially leading to health issues. Addressing our underlying causes of stress and introducing stress management tools, are beneficial to helping you move to a state of optimal health.

The challenge to stress management is that a band-aid approach is not effective. Stress management tools such as mindfulness, when used consistently, help you navigate the turbulence that stress creates. This is when forming daily habits and embracing mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, breathing exercises or low-flow activities, such as yoga, have the greatest impact and can heighten your awareness of your thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Having these practices are like wearing your own coat of amour and improving your ability to respond to stressors with intention, detaching yourself from worries, embracing the present moment, and cultivate resilience in the face of life's challenges.

Optimal health is not merely the absence of disease but the presence of balance and vitality. As you build and create healthy lifestyle habits, including stress management and mindfulness, your ability to make healthier life choices, nurture your emotional well-being and build foundations of a long and fulfilling life while fostering physical, mental and emotional harmony.

The role of sleep and recovery

Now let's move our attention to the sometimes under-appreciated and yet oh-so-important health benefit of sleep. This is one of my favourites, and I don't mean to brag, but sleep is my superpower! While I have always protected my sleep like no other daily healthy habit, I hear others gloat about how they only need 4-5 hours of sleep per night. Which camp are you in?

A healthy sleep routine is paramount to optimal health, as adequate and quality sleep is essential for physical health. During sleep, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, strengthens the immune system, and regulates various hormones responsible for appetite and metabolism. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to a host of health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and compromised immune function.

Mental and emotional well-being are also intricately tied to sleep. A good night's rest is essential for cognitive functions like memory consolidation, problem-solving, and creativity. It plays a pivotal role in regulating mood, reducing stress, and preventing mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression.

To build a healthy sleep routine, it's crucial to:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment with proper lighting and a comfortable mattress
  • Limit caffeine and electronic device use before bedtime
  • Engage in relaxing activities like reading or gentle stretching

Constant busyness, stress, and a relentless pursuit of productivity are the realities of modern life. However, the importance of recovery lies in its ability to rejuvenate the mind and body. Regular relaxation practices, such as mindfulness or time in nature, help reduce stress, improve mental clarity, and promote emotional stability. These moments of respite are vital to allow the body to repair, replenish energy, and maintain the delicate balance integral to overall health.

Tracking and monitoring progress

Most of us wear some form of tracking device, and if you don't you probably carry one in the form of your phone. Tracking habit progress and health improvements is now more popular than ever and can be a great way to have a real-time understanding of the habits you are implementing and how they could be impacting your health and well-being.

Tracking lets you gain valuable insights into your journey towards a healthier and more productive life.

Whether you are old-school and love the lost art of writing on paper or a tech-head who has all the gadgets, there are many tools and methods available for the  purpose of tracking habits,  ranging from traditional journals to cutting-edge mobile apps. These tools enable you to record habits, such as exercise routines, dietary choices, and sleep patterns, and give you the ability to monitor progress over time.

Self-assessment is a pivotal component of this process, as it empowers you to identify areas where you excel and areas that may need improvement. The true strength of habit tracking lies in making informed adjustments based on the data collected.

Analysing the patterns and trends in progress can help you:

  • Refine health and habit strategies
  • Set realistic goals
  • Enhance the chance of success

In this way, habit tracking becomes a powerful tool for self-improvement, providing the motivation and guidance needed to make meaningful and sustainable changes.

Functional medicine recognises that we are all unique, and our health needs differ. It encourages us to create routines tailored to our specific requirements. Healthy habits are the building blocks of this journey. They are the daily practices that, when integrated into our lives, have the potential to bring about transformative change.

Creating healthy habits such as establishing a consistent sleep routine, incorporating daily morning and evening light, eating meals at consistent times, scheduling regular physical activity and including common relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises all help promote overall well-being and can have a lasting impact on your health and well-being.

jessica cairns health coach wearing dark green shirt standing smiling
Jessica Cairns
Jess, a health coach at Melbourne Functional Medicine, specialises in nutrition, mindset, sleep, and exercise, focusing on lifestyle changes for mental well-being.
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Jessica Cairns
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something? Join the conversation in the comments below and we'd be delighted to chat.
{ "datePublished": "Feb 02, 2024" }