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7 ways to break a bad habit

Most people who smoke know it’s bad for their health. Likewise, most people who don’t exercise know they should. So why haven’t all the smokers quit and all the couch potatoes started pumping iron? One small word describes a big part of the problem: habit.

For many people, giving up a habit is as difficult as giving up a friend. Habits, like friends, are the scaffolding upon which we build emotional security. Morning coffee drinkers can’t get going without a cup. Smokers light up when they feel stressed. People who are used to having a drink before dinner can’t relax until that drink is in hand.

So how can you break a bad habit? Give these ideas a try. You’ll gain the opportunity to live a longer, healthier life.

1. Take baby steps. Just as a baby rolls over, crawls and cruises around, holding onto furniture before walking unaided, adults trying to change their behavior should attempt it one step at a time. Look at your end goal, compare it to your current behavior, then chart what small steps you can take to get where you want to go. For example, if you’re currently sedentary and want to become a routine exerciser, don’t just join a gym and hope for the best. Start walking 10 minutes a day, gradually working up to half an hour, then 45 minutes. When you’re ready for more, visit a gym and try out the weight machines, take tennis lessons or start jogging.

2. Tackle one habit at a time. Don’t try to quit smoking and stop overeating at the same time. Most likely, you’ll feel overwhelmed and fail to accomplish either goal.

3. Tell people you’re trying to break a habit. A public commitment will strengthen your resolve. In addition, you may get good advice from people you know who’ve successfully done what you’re trying to do. If you enjoy the Internet, look for a fitness, diet or smoking-cessation buddy at a health or fitness Web site. You can offer each other support because you’re going through the same change. You’ll also be able to exchange objective opinions because you’re not part of each other’s lives in the way that family members and close friends are.

4. Enlist the aid of family and friends. After telling those around you what you’re trying to accomplish, let them know how they can best support you. If you’re trying to quit smoking and want to avoid places where people smoke, ask friends to visit a museum or take a walk with you instead of meeting them at a bar.

5. Keep a journal. This will keep you accountable to yourself and help you track progress and see patterns in your behavior. For example, if you feel the urge to light a cigarette every time you pick up the phone, you’ll soon spot this pattern in your journal and may decide to avoid long telephone conversations with friends for a few months.

6. Set a schedule. Don’t decide whether you’ll exercise on a day-to-day basis. There will always be excuses to avoid exerting yourself. Instead, set a firm schedule. For example, you might take a walk first thing every morning or every evening after dinner.

7. Acquire a replacement habit. Giving up a habit can leave an uncomfortable void in your life. If you’re giving up your nightly high-fat dessert, start a new after-dinner habit, such as eating a piece of fruit. Or plan to do something you enjoy after you eat so that it will be easier to get up from the table without having dessert. For example, you might work in your garden, take a walk or call a friend.

Changing a habit takes commitment, creativity, common sense, good planning and strong social support. If you take the time to pull those pieces together before you start, chances are you’ll pull off the habit change you have in mind.