How to Break Your 7 Worst Health Habits
From stress eating to Netflix binges
We all have at least one not-so-great behavior we’ve tried (and tried and tried) to kick: Sucking down super-sweet coffee drinks every morning. Cuddling up to Netflix until “yikes!” o’clock every night. Even if you’re not smoking a pack a day, these moves still take a toll on your health. This year, it’s time to make a change. You told Health your top seven most obstinate bad habits, and we tapped leading experts to find out how you can finally transform your ways. Here’s to a healthier, happier, stronger year ahead. Cheers! (With a refreshing glass of H2O, of course.)
The habit: Unwinding with a drink every night
Why you can’t shake it: It’s called happy hour for a reason. “Alcohol releases pleasure chemicals, like endorphins and dopamine. When you get that feeling, you want a little more, and more—and that’s why you might ask for another round,” says psychologist Michael Levy, PhD, director of substance use services at North Shore Medical Center in Salem, Mass.
The goal: While enjoying two or three drinks with friends is okay on occasion, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says women should generally aim to have one drink a day at most (seven per week). Regularly going above that can increase your risk of health problems, such as certain cancers and high blood pressure. (If you’re experiencing negative consequences because of your drinking, no matter how much you consume, it may be a problem. Reach out to your doctor as the first step toward getting help.)
How to change a wine habit
Take days off: It’s a good idea to order a mocktail a couple of days a week. “This helps reduce your tolerance, so on days you do drink, one feels like enough,” says Levy.
Savor every sip: Make your gin and tonic or glass of bubbly last 45 minutes to an hour. How? Put your glass down between sips.
Measure: Pour out exactly 5 ounces of wine (or 1 1/2 ounces of hard alcohol) to see what “one drink” really looks like. Research shows it’s easy to overpour, depending on the size and shape of the glass; restaurants may serve you 7 ounces or more. Mixed drinks, too, contain more alcohol than you might think—the average gin and tonic counts as 1.6 drinks, while a margarita counts as 1.7.
Gab, not glug: Instead of rushing the bar immediately, start by ordering something nonalcoholic and catching up with friends. (That is the point, after all!) Then get a drink. One off-the-wall option: a beer—especially if you don’t really love it. “It’s 12 ounces, so it takes longer to drink, and you’ll sip it more slowly than you would your favorite drink,” says Levy.
The habit: Drinking flavored coffee
Why you can’t shake it: “You’re taking the first hit of your drug,” says Brooke Alpert, RD, author of The Sugar Detox. Even a simple drink like a small vanilla latte can contain 14 grams, or almost 4 teaspoons, of added sugar—more than half of what you should consume all day. (The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 24 grams of added sugar daily.) “Coffee drinks are basically milkshakes,” says Alpert. Since liquid sugar (in drinks) gets absorbed into your bloodstream quickly—particularly when you sip it first thing in the a.m.—the corresponding blood sugar spike and crash makes you crave even more sugar later. “That sets you up to make poor food choices the rest of the day,” says Alpert.
The goal: Stop adding any sugar to your coffee.
How to fix a flavored coffee habit
DIY: If you typically order a presweetened beverage, get it unsweetened, then add real sugar yourself. “It’s like having salad dressing on the side. It’ll give you awareness of how much sugar you were really having,” says Alpert. Try this for one or two days.
Cold-turkey it: Alpert has found that cutting sugar out of the drink completely (rather than weaning off it) is the most effective tactic for her clients. It may be super hard at first, but you’ll adjust faster. Order unsweetened coffee with regular milk, half-and-half, or cream (yep, fat can be good—it’s tasty and satiating) and sprinkle in cinnamon and nutmeg yourself. Or ask the barista to blend coffee, milk, and ice for a healthy frappe; Alpert says many people find unsweetened iced coffee more palatable than hot. Still too bitter? Swap the joe for a flavored tea, which you can find in a lot of fun fruity, spicy, and naturally sweet flavors, like vanilla rooibos and passion fruit green tea.
The habit: Staying up late to watch TV
Why you can’t shake it: You’re so swamped during the day that when you finally do get a chance to sit down, it’s already bedtime. “People steal time from sleep just to have time for themselves to relax,” says James Findley, PhD, clinical director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the University of Pennsylvania.
The goals: Start winding down an hour before bed and set limits on how much you watch.
How to stop watching so much TV before bed
Move the TV out: Television in your bedroom? Get it outta there. “If the bed means it’s time to watch TV, it stops being a cue that it’s sleep time,” explains Findley.
Delegate: If you’re running around trying to check off everything on your to-do list—and then have no time left for yourself at the end of the night—step back and think about which tasks can be done tomorrow (sleeping > sparkly kitchen) and which you can delegate (can your partner or kids fold the laundry?). Taking some things off your plate—and learning to ignore what’s not a priority—will create space in your schedule for relaxation so it doesn’t cut into valuable snooze hours.
Wind down: Designate the hour before bed as your time for bliss and self-care. If TV truly does help you relax, you’ve got the green light from Findley to catch your fave show, as long as it’s not scary or overstimulating. Know you’re a sucker for that Fixer Upper marathon? Set restrictions (TV goes off at 10 p.m.—no excuses!). “You have to consider whether you’re willing to take two hours to enjoy TV now and pay for it for the 16 hours after you wake up,” says Findley. You can also find an activity that helps you simmer down and feels like self-care to boot, like reading that book you’ve had on your list forever, listening to quiet music, turning on a podcast, knitting, or applying a face mask.
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The habit: Stress eating
Why you can’t shake it: “Turning to food is an easy way to soothe, comfort, or distract yourself,” says Minh-Hai Alex, RD, a mindful-eating expert in Seattle. And it’s never a plate of steamed veggies you reach for (imagine that!). High-carb, high-fat fare can trigger the reward circuits in the brain, giving you the feel-good boost you’re seeking in the moment.
The goal: Figure out what it is that you actually need (it’s usually not food).
How to stop stress eating
Practice self-care: Stress is one thing, but when paired with sleep deprivation, fatigue or ravenous hunger, it can make resisting that pint of ice cream even harder. Be sure you’re prioritizing sleep, relaxing in some way every day, and staying well-nourished.
Power pause: When the chips are calling your name, hold off a second and get curious. “Are you actually physically hungry?” asks Alex. If not, then think, “What am I asking the food to do for me?” Possible answers: procrastinate, alleviate loneliness, fix a bad mood.
Now decide: If you conclude, “Yes, I’m stressed and no one’s keeping me from those Oreos,” then tell yourself you’ll put a few on a plate and mindfully enjoy them rather than mindlessly polish off half a sleeve, says Alex. “This is progress because you’re not acting on autopilot. It’s not a crime to give yourself permission to eat something.”
Fulfill your need: Whether you opted to eat the treat or not, identify what your body and mind are really itching for: a walk break to clear your head from a tough task, connection in the form of a quick text to a friend or a few minutes journaling your worries at the end of the day. That can head off future dives into the chip bag.
The habit: Not drinking enough water throughout the day
Why you can’t shake it: There are a million excuses we all come up with for not glugging enough. “People tell me that water tastes gross, that they don’t remember to drink any, or that they’d rather have a soda,” shares Alpert. Sound familiar?
The goal: Experts recommend that women consume 91 ounces of water (20 percent of which can come from high-water-content foods like fruits and vegetables) daily, though everyone’s fluid needs are different depending on environment, exercise habits, or health status (such as pregnancy). Getting enough for your body is a buffer against bad moods and can improve the health of your skin and your digestive system functioning, to name just a few benefits.
How to start drinking more water
See your progress: A visual cue will help remind you to sip regularly. Alpert likes to carry a 17-ounce water bottle with her wherever she goes. Aim to refill a bottle that size at least two or three times a day.
Make it tastier: If plain H2O is blah to you, spruce it up by throwing in orange or cucumber slices or fresh mint. You’ll add not just flavor but also visual appeal: When a beautiful pitcher of water is staring at you from the top shelf of the refrigerator, you’ll want to reach for a glass.
Get off the soda: Try unsweetened flavored iced teas or sparkling water like LaCroix or Tickle Water, both of which come in a variety of flavors and feel fancier than a plain glass. (Just check the label to make sure your beverage of choice doesn’t contain added sugar.)
Get in the zone: “Once you start drinking water more regularly, you’ll be more in touch with your thirst, and it’ll be easier to remember to drink,” says Alpert. “And the more you drink, the more you’ll keep drinking.”
The habit: Using your smartphone before bed
Why you can’t shake it: A Harvard study found that when people shared about themselves, they got a little rewarding burst of dopamine—which might be why you’re glued to your phone! Bad news, though: The blue light emitted from your digital devices stimulates your brain to stay “on” and resist sleep—and, unlike TV, you hold these gadgets close to your face, making them even more disruptive.
The goal: Turn off smartphones and tablets two hours before bed. (And, yes, we know that’s a tall order, especially if you’re used to cozying up with your phone in the sheets.)
How to do a digital detox before bed
Create a cue: It’s one thing to say you won’t check Instagram after 9 p.m. every night; remembering to do it is a whole new ball game. Set an alarm on your phone or computer to tell you it’s stop time. “This provides an automatic cue,” says Findley.
Avoid temptation: Activate the “do not disturb” function on your phone, which silences calls and notifications. (If you need to be available for someone, you can program your phone to allow that person’s call to come through.)
Keep it away: If your phone is right next to you in bed, you’ll be more inclined to roll over and check it just one last time before you snooze—or even in the middle of the night. Put your phone across the room to eliminate the urge.
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The habit: Not pushing yourself at the gym
Why you can’t shake it: Texting on the floor, chatting with a pal during a BodyPump class, reading a mag on the elliptical—whatever you’re doing, you know you’re slacking, and yet it’s hard to go all in. “Full-assing a workout requires exerting yourself, sweating, panting and being physically vulnerable—not things many people enjoy,” says Gregory Chertok, a certified sport psychology consultant. Aside from that, he adds, you might not feel sure of your moves, or you may be self-conscious working out.
The goal: Get the most out of each workout. You made it to the gym, so you might as well fully commit.
How to make the most out of your workouts
Go somewhere else: Worried other people at the gym are being judgmental? Take your workout elsewhere, says Chertok. That might mean doing an on-demand video in the comfort of your own home, hooking up with a trainer for a one-on-one session or hitting the gym when it’s less busy.
Love what you do: If you hate yoga, you’re not going to give Tree pose your all. If cycling isn’t for you, you’ll probably try to merely survive—rather than thrive in—spin class. Choosing a workout you like and knowing your “why” (you’re running because it’s fun, or because you always feel great afterward) are the keys to making a good workout a habit, suggests new research in the journal Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology.
Beat boredom: It seems counterintuitive, but upping the challenge factor can boost motivation. Set a bigger goal, whether it’s running your first 5K or training for a century ride.
Mix it up: “Variety keeps things fresh,” says Chertok. Go to the morning boot camp class instead of the evening one, do an interval workout on the treadmill instead of your normal three-miler outside or try out that new rowing gym. “These all add an element of novelty,” he says, “which will help you stay engaged in your workout.”