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Developing Healthy Habits For Life

During this difficult period of lockdown, we have been more focused than ever on our health. Are there any healthy habits that you would like to develop? Like many people, I am guilty of neglecting certain aspects of my health, and one thing I have been trying to do during this time is develop a habit of walking 10,000 steps a day.

What Is A Habit?

A habit is a behaviour or activity that you carry out routinely and consistently, almost without thinking.

Healthy habits are behaviours or activities that you can incorporate in your daily lifestyle which improve your general health and well-being. We all know of several healthy habits that we should be doing routinely such as exercising frequently, and getting your 8 hours of sleep every night.

Do you routinely forget to brush your teeth or floss and want to develop good oral health habits for life? This month is National Smile Month, so it is a great time to challenge yourself to improve your oral health.

Brushing Your Teeth To Success

Brushing your teeth twice daily is an important healthy habit which can improve your quality of life. Not only does it reduce your risk of dental decay and gum disease, but can also reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Some of us have developed this healthy habit from a young age that we do it without even thinking as it is so ingrained into our daily routines, so much that even after a heavy night out I always brush my teeth, even if I can't remember much else!

If this habit hasn't been developed from a young age, it may feel like a chore to brush, or we may forget to brush as it is something you would have to consciously think about doing.

All habits can be acquired by following the same behaviour pattern over and over again until it becomes almost involuntary. It has been shown that the average time it takes to develop a habit is 66 days, however this can range from 18 to 254 days. Some habits are easier to form than others and some people find it easier to form habits than others. Quitting smoking is probably harder for most than starting the healthy habit of brushing twice a day.

How Do You Eat An Elephant?

When we make that big decision to improve our health and well-being, sometimes we get excited and want to do too much too soon. For example, you've made the decision you're gonna brush twice a day, floss daily, run 5k a day, quit smoking, become vegan, stop drinking, and it can quickly become very overwhelming and difficult to achieve. By making the decision to change one small thing at a time this can help keep us motivated. Starting with an easy to achieve simple goal is a good way to start.

If you're not already brushing twice a day, this could be an easy goal to start with. It doesn't take any physical exertion, it's not mentally strenuous, it's relatively inexpensive making it realistic to achieve and maintain long term.

To achieve our goal, we must create an environment in which it is favourable for us to carry out the desired behaviour or activity. For example, to eat more healthily, we may want to remove any unhealthy food from our environment to make it easier to resist temptation. To achieve our goal of brushing twice a day we need a toothbrush, toothpaste, a sink, and time. All we need is around 5 minutes each day, which is 0.5% of your day (assuming you get 8 hours of sleep!). I would say this is pretty manageable for most people, think about how much time we spend mindlessly scrolling in bed.

We also need consistency. If you do the same behaviour the same way at the same time it will be much easier for it to become a habit. I normally recommend brushing last thing at night just before you sleep, and first thing as soon as you wake up. This then becomes a behaviour pattern, so that the action of brushing teeth becomes associated with the action of going to sleep and waking up. Brushing before bed is the most important time to brush because this removes plaque that has built up during the day. When we sleep, our mouth is usually drier and we don't have as much protective saliva, so you would be at more risk of decay. The other time you brush is up to you, but keep it consistent.

Tracking your habits are a good way to keep motivated and will help to remind you initially. There are various ways you can track yourself, including habit tracking apps that can be used, where you can build up a streak. A streak is a highly powerful motivator, giving you a little hit of dopamine, the feel good hormone, each time you see the streak developing. You don't even need an app, a simple paper chart that you tick off or a bullet journal can be just as powerful, if not more so.

The act of physically crossing off a completed tasks is so satisfying.

Here is my sister's lockdown gardening bullet journal that she is proudly showing off, she says "it's like giving yourself a gold star!"

When you see your streak building, you will not want to break it! Some electric toothbrushes have even utilised this powerful psychological tool, to automatically log each time you brush for 2 minutes, and you also can achieve trophies for hitting milestones. Now who doesn't like winning a trophy? Eventually it will become so natural and easy that you will not need to keep track.

Sometimes something can throw you off track, for example, your toothbrush might break, you might run out toothpaste, or you have a late night. When you break your streak, it might feel very disheartening, and you may be tempted to throw in the towel. However one missed day does not mean it is a failure, you will already have made a huge difference to your oral health. Early signs of gum disease (gingivitis) can be reversed in as little as 7 days.

Reduce any potential stumbling blocks by ensuring your environment makes it easy for you to continue making these daily positive changes. If something is difficult to achieve, you will find an excuse not to do it. You might want to keep a spare manual toothbrush in case your electric toothbrush runs out of battery. You could consider one of the many subscription services available for dental supplies. If you are not able to brush in the morning, because it's a rush, then you could keep a toothbrush and toothpaste at work, or in your bag, and brush during your lunch break.

Once you have successfully developed this habit, you can add another goal. If you are already brushing twice a day but don't floss, or you are only flossing when you remember, then add this to your routine until it becomes a habit. Cleaning inbetween the teeth with floss or inter-dental brushes helps remove plaque from areas where the toothbrush cannot get to. I would recommend adding flossing to your night time brushing routine, when we often have more time. If you are already brushing twice daily and flossing, you could add in tongue cleaning which removes bacteria from the tongue and improves bad breath.

The purpose is to break up these sometimes overwhelming goals into more manageable, realistic and more importantly, maintainable goals. This could be said for any goal you want to achieve in life.

"There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time"

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