Some habits are worth keeping


FRESH ROUTINE  Regular family walks within 2km of home are fast becoming a source of joy for many.

Andrew O'Brien

Old habits are like Bruce Willis, they die hard. Take smoking for example, nicotine withdrawal symptoms are at their worst 2-3 days after your last cigarette and are typically gone within 1-3 months. Why then do some people lapse back into smoking after a year, or many years? After that long, the habit is more relevant than the addiction.
I once met a man who had started smoking when he was 11 or 12 years old, and for years smoked 200 rollies a day. He showed me his hands – they were covered in small scars where he had tried to put a freshly rolled smoke in his mouth while there was already one burning. He laughed and said, “That’s not addiction, that’s just habit.”
He went on to tell me that he had quit when one morning he stopped in the corner shop at the end of his street for his regular two packets of tobacco and newspaper. He picked up the paper on the way past and the shopkeeper had the tobacco on the counter waiting. Normally this was a seamless process, the man would hand over some money, he’d get a bit of change, there’d be some meaningless small talk and everyone went about their day.
Not this morning though. For some reason he was distracted and couldn’t remember how much money he needed, when the shopkeeper told him he was horrified. “Do you mean to tell me I’ve been giving you that much every day for the last 30 years? My wife is at home wondering why we can’t go on holidays, and here’s me giving you a small fortune every week!”
The shopkeeper was shocked, and so was he. He pushed the tobacco back across the counter, flipped her a coin for the newspaper and walked out. No more smoking. Admittedly, not many people can quit so easily, but he made the point himself. He was only doing it out of habit.
I’m no expert on quitting smoking, but I have read up on habit creation. Many of our daily actions aren’t conscious choices but ingrained habits. Consider something like making the bed. If you have always made the bed, it’s hard to leave the house without doing so, even though it has little effect on your day.

New times, new ways
In times like these, new habits are being made faster than we think. I’m sure everyone is now washing areas of their hands they never even considered before, and doing so for the full 20 seconds. At first it seemed like a drag, but by now last year’s brief splash under the tap already feels wrong.
Good weather over the last few weeks and being restricted in what else we can do with our spare time has more of us being more active than usual. Will the new routines of walking or running every day turn into lasting habit? Probably not for everyone, but hopefully for a lot of us.
Researchers recognise that habits come out of a cycle of motivation, followed by an action that leads to a reward. Often when we start out, the motivation for exercise is to lose weight; you go for your run, and hopefully the scales do their thing. Of late though, plenty of us are  exercising just to clear the head, and it is this that might make the habit stick.
Research suggests that doing something for the sake of itself seems to have more of an effect on habit formation. At the risk of sounding hippyish, running for the joy that it can bring is much more pleasant that doing so purely to lose weight. And treating a walk as a meditative head-clearing exercise rather than some form of self-flagellation means you are more likely to keep it up when other things compete for your time.
Some researchers class exercise as a keystone habit, one that triggers an improvement in areas of life beyond just the physical. It stands to reason that people who exercise regularly tend to eat better, but some studies have shown when subjects start a new exercise programme there is a tendency to perform better at work, make more prudent financial decisions and – wait for it – quit smoking.
These are strange days, so wash your hands because you should. Exercise because you can, because you want to, and be thankful for it.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at