For many of us the New Year represents a chance to live a healthier life— eat well, exercise, rest and find that perfect work-life balance. And I am definitely hoping that this will be the year that it all comes true for me!
I have had periods of time when I have been able to achieve the “healthy life” that so many of us crave. However, maintaining these good habits has presented quite a challenge. A shift in priorities, a busy work week or the fun of the holidays can result in a resurgence of those not-so-healthy habits. And what I find so frustrating is that getting back on track can be such a battle.
Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Habits are formed when behaviors provide a reward that the brain likes. As soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of the brain shuts down and relies on what has worked in the past. No wonder getting back on track can be such a battle— not only do I have to resist my desire to sit on the couch and eat comfort foods, I have to jump-start the decision-making part of my brain!
Realizing what it takes for me to stick to my healthy habits causes me to think differently about what it takes for children to do the same. We as parents try to instill good habits in our children, and become frustrated when our children fail to practice these habits. However, children would face the same challenges as we do. So how do we help our children keep those healthy habits?
Motivation and routine have been the two factors that have helped me maintain healthy habits. Setting a goal or committing to a future activity (like signing up to run a half marathon) and sticking to a schedule (like always running on Saturday mornings) have helped me “stick-to-it.” In addition, building in rewards (like breakfast with friends after the morning run) provides the fill-up I need to make it worthwhile.
And maybe these same factors would work for our children. As parents we can definitely establish routines in the home that can reinforce the development of healthy habits. Drinking water, eating good foods and getting enough sleep can all be reinforced through routines. Finding the motivation or reward for our children may be a little trickier—but not impossible. Connecting exercise with fun and time with friends and family could provide a type of reward for children. Expecting children to play outside alone may not provide any motivation—but joining your child in a snow ball fight could be just the motivation your child needs!