The Science on How to Make Healthy Habits Stick

From nourishing your body and optimizing sleep to being flexible and patient, here’s the research on how to sustain healthy habits.

By: Lexy Parsons

Sticking to healthy habits can feel difficult if we’re trying to do too much at once.  And it makes sense, when you think about it. In addition to initiating feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, putting too much pressure on yourself to uproot your lifestyle or achieve multiple healthy habits at once can lead to burnout and a higher likelihood of abandoning those changes altogether. Just like unhealthy behaviors take time to develop, replacing them won’t happen overnight. The good news is that there’s a science behind making healthy habits stick! While it won’t be the same journey from person to person, there’s promising research on habit formation with science-backed principles that when implemented, can significantly improve the chances of success. And we’re here to share all you need to know. Ahead, the research on healthy habits with evidence-based tips to make healthy habits stick.

RELATED: 12 Healthy Habits to Follow For Life

Common Barriers to Lifestyle Changes

Before we dive into the data on how to keep habits, it’s important to understand why you might struggle upholding your habits and goals in the first place. No matter your reason for seeking change (whether for improving your physical health, increasing your life expectancy, supporting your brain and cognitive function, or simply wanting to feel good), identifying and recognizing common barriers to change is crucial for your success.

Some barriers to lifestyle changes may include:

  • Resistance to change deeply ingrained habits (like smoking, drinking, or unhealthy eating patterns)
  • Being too busy or lack of time 
  • Lack of social support (whether it’s peer pressure or lack of support from family or friends)
  • Limited knowledge or understanding of nutrition, exercise, or other healthy habits
  • Negative self-talk, self-doubt, or lack of self-motivation

Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can develop strategies to effectively manage and overcome them with realistic (and science-backed) insights that will set you up for long-term success.  

15 Science-Backed Insights to Building Better Habits

#1 Start Small and Stay Consistent

“Start small and stay consistent” is one of the biggest secrets to long-term success. Rather than jumping toward something more radical, begin with tiny, manageable changes that support your desired habits. To reach your goal of meditating or exercising regularly, maybe it’s simply starting with a 10-minute daily walk or 5-minute meditation until it becomes integrated into your daily routine. Research shows that consistent repetition of these small actions leads to the formation of new neural pathways in the brain, making it easier to adopt more significant changes over time!

#2 Try Habit Stacking

Building upon existing routines is a technique known as “habit stacking.” This science-supported method takes advantage of your already-in-place healthy habits as anchors for introducing new ones. Rooted in the concept that habits are often formed through repetition and association, you can seamlessly integrate new healthy behaviors in a manageable way.

This could be adding a boost of superfoods to your morning coffee, adding the habit of listening to a podcast or audiobook while driving or exercising, or performing a few sets of body weight exercises while brushing your teeth or doing the laundry.

#3 Incorporate Variety & Try Something New

While you should stay consistent with the overall healthy habit (like exercising daily or eating nutritious meals), repeating the same behavior time after time can lead to boredom, lack of motivation, and even a plateau. Rather than eating chicken and sweet potatoes for lunch everyday, try incorporating new healthy meals like easy-prep sheet pan dinners or colorful stir-fries. Or, rather than going to the same yoga class every day, maybe you switch it up with a new equipment-free FitOn workout at home. This could even be as simple as walking a new scenic route when getting your steps in!

Research shows that incorporating variety into your routine not only keeps things interesting, but also challenges your body and mind in new ways. This approach keeps you engaged, motivated, and more likely to maintain a healthy lifestyle in the long run!

#4 Embrace Environmental Cues

If you’re trying to consume more water, keep a water bottle in your bag or at your desk. If your goal is to exercise in the morning, lay your clothes out the night before. If you want to adopt a positive mindset, write positive affirmations on sticky notes and place them in areas that you frequently pass. While simple, research suggests that environmental cues significantly influence habit formation! 

#5 Use Positive Reinforcement

Just like we would parent our children or train our pets, positive reinforcement can be a powerful tool in shaping and maintaining healthy habits in ourselves. According to research, positive reinforcement — like celebrating even the smallest wins — has been shown to activate the reward centers in the brain and strengthen the neural pathways associated with habit formation. Not only does this increase the chances that we’ll repeat these positive behaviors, but it also provides encouragement and instills self-motivation. 

#6 Emphasize Intrinsic Motivation

While extrinsic motivation is driven by external desires and accomplishments (like the potential praise or recognition you’d get from a peer or parent when eating healthy or losing weight), intrinsic motivation is driven by our own personal satisfaction and joy. When building goals based on the latter, research shows we’re more likely to build long-lasting, positive change. Intrinsic motivation has been linked to increased levels of persistence, enhanced satisfaction, improved performance, and greater overall success

With this in mind, consider how you can shift your approach to goal setting by emphasizing intrinsic motivators. Maybe you want to cultivate healthy relationships, improve the quality of your sleep, reduce stress, or enhance your mood and energy — these are all great places to start!

#7 Call On Accountability and Social Support

Whether you join a supportive community like FitOn or enlist an accountability partner, fostering a sense of community and social support has been shown to increase resilience and adherence to new habits. Maybe you share your progress on the FitOn feed, post a healthy new recipe on Instagram, or partner with an accountability buddy to keep up with your morning workouts. Find whatever feels best for you!

#8 Practice Gratitude 

Even in the face of adversity, cultivating gratitude has been shown to be a powerful factor in sustaining positive change. Research suggests that individuals who incorporate gratitude into their daily lives are more likely to experience increased motivation, resilience, and overall life satisfaction. Try this tool, even if you’re struggling to make your habits stick! Focus on what is going well, even if seemingly unrelated to your goals. Maybe you express gratitude for the sunny day that will allow you to spend more time outdoors, to your dog for providing you comfort during a time of need, or to the local cafe that makes your favorite latte each morning. This positive mindset, rooted in appreciation for the good in your life, helps to foster a supportive environment that encourages healthy habits and an overall positive lifestyle.

#9 Be Open to Adapt

Rather than get discouraged, acknowledge that there will be roadblocks along the way — the path to success might look a little different than you imagined! By giving yourself breathing room to adapt, you’ll be better equipped to navigate challenges and setbacks with resilience and positivity. If a particular habit isn’t proving effective or if life circumstances shift, don’t be afraid to pivot and modify your approach! Not only will you reduce stress and pressure, but by being open and flexible, you’ll learn from your experiences and find solutions that better suit your evolving needs. Flexibility has proven to be a key component of successful habit development.

#10 Prioritize Sleep

Quality sleep is the cornerstone to overall physical and mental well-being, and therefore a crucial component of making healthy habits that stick. When we’re sleep-deprived and running on fumes, not only will we experience difficulties in adhering to positive behaviors, but research shows we’re more likely to make unhealthy choices and decisions (like making impulsive decisions and reaching for high-calorie and high-sugar foods). With adequate sleep, on the other hand, we’re better able to cope with stress, regulate our mood and emotions, and improve our cognitive performance and decision-making — all things that support habit development!

#11 Nourish Your Body

Similar to sleep, research consistently supports the importance of nutrition in optimizing overall health. With enhanced mood, mental health, energy, and cognitive function — benefits linked to eating a wholesome diet — we’re better able to create a strong, lasting foundation for the adoption and adherence to healthy lifestyles and habits. To ensure you’re balancing your plate with a wide variety of nutrients, opt for foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. 

#12 Monitor and Track Your Progress

Research shows that individuals who keep track of their habits are more likely to sustain positive changes. Utilize the FitOn App to keep track of your workouts,  jot down your goals or to-do lists in a journal, and consider using fitness trackers or smart tools to track your progress and reflect on achievements. By keeping record of your habits, you can utilize your insights to celebrate successes, stay accountable, and make informed adjustments when needed!

#13 Apply The Two-Minute Rule

According to productivity expert James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, breaking down habits into tasks that take two minutes or less — the 2-minute rule — can significantly boost the likelihood of habit formation. The idea is to make habits so easy and quick to accomplish that there’s no excuse not to do them! Starting with a small, easily achievable action (a micro-habit) makes it more likely that you’ll initiate the habit, creating momentum for more substantial changes. This could be a brief FitOn workout, a short breathwork session, or simply preparing a healthy snack!

#14 Practice Self-Compassion

Adopting new healthy lifestyle habits is no easy feat, especially if you’re trying to replace existing unhealthy behaviors! Be kind to yourself, and speak to yourself as you would if you were talking to a friend or loved one. According to research, individuals who practice self-compassion are more likely to bounce back from setbacks, maintain motivation in their journey, and create an environment that supports adherence to long-term change.

RELATED: How to Transform Your Life With The Powerful Practice of Self-Compassion

#15 Be Patient (But Persistent!)

Habit formation is a gradual process that demands patience and persistence — change won’t happen overnight! In fact, research indicates that it takes an average of 66 days for a behavior to become automatic — yes, it can take as long as two months! While this will look different from person to person, embrace the journey and stay the course. Remember, consistency is key. 

The Science-Backed Secrets to Building Sustainable Healthy Habits

Your formula for long-lasting positive change, based on science and data. From habit stacking and applying the two-minute rule to practicing gratitude and self-compassion, there are so many simple and sustainable ways to support your healthy habits. But remember, small steps make more lasting results — start with a few strategies, and build from there! The key is to find approaches that work for you. Feel free to customize them to your preferences and lifestyle, and modify as you go. Stay committed, and stay the course!