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Building the Habit of Breaking Habits

For better or for worse, habits are a part of our lives. We deal with them everyday whether or not we are aware of them. Some ways of improving ourselves are to increase the habits that positively affect our lives and to decrease those that don’t serve us well. I work in the fitness industry, and I often help people establish habits around exercise routine, proper form, nutrition, etc. But there is another set of habits that I am interested in; the things we do habitually without realizing. These habits are often ignored and can be detrimental to one’s health. Focusing on these subconscious “problem-habits” can be a catalyst for positive change in someone’s life.

The habits we like to build, are the ones that benefit us. There are many habits that have a positive impact on us whether they are health-related (drinking 2 glasses of water each morning); safety-related (wearing a bike helmet); or skills-related (practicing piano for 20 minutes every day). We build routines in order for these habits to become automatic. When practices are routine, we don’t have to think about them and our brain is free to focus on other things.

As a personal trainer, I assist people in making exercise become habitual. Research, such as Bas VerPlanken’s Predicting Habit: The Case of Physical Exercise, shows that people who make a habit of exercising (by building it into their daily routines) will exercise more frequently and are more likely to stick to it for a longer period of time. They don’t have to think about it, or convince themselves that it is worth doing. It’s automatic and they simply do it.

Very often, clients seek my guidance in creating a practice of exercise. They find that with the support of a coach to whom they are accountable, they successfully transition from occasional exercisers to habitual exercisers.

Not all habits are beneficial, though, and on the flip side, we have habits that can actually impede our health. It could be a habitual way of moving, acting or feeling and it is in the interest of our health to try to “break” or unlearn these habits.

For example, I recently noticed that when I’m driving I slouch to the right (my right arm rests on the arm rest, leaning more onto my right hip and shortening my right side). This habit puts my body in a state of imbalance. Day after day of extended periods of this imbalance may lead to body alignment issues and could eventually cause pain. This is certainly not a valuable habit!

The good news is that even if you are in a situation like this, there are some steps you can take to lessen the negative effects. As in many things, we need to begin with awareness. In his book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, Norman Doidge writes that recent research shows “long-term neuroplastic change occurs most readily when a person...pays close attention while learning” (Pg. 170). Thus, if while I am driving I notice my imbalances, I can learn from them, which is a first step in unlearning this particular habit.

Some strategies to break invaluable habits are:

1. Bring in Awareness -- you need to become aware of the action, movement or feeling that you are experiencing.

2. Explore other ways to act or move.

3. Get help. Sometimes (often) we don’t see what we are doing. This is when another set of eyes or hands or a different perspective can help.

If you are wondering how you can begin this process, the good news is that the Feldenkrais method will help you with all three strategies mentioned above. An Awareness Through Movement lesson, which is the verbally guided approach of the Feldenkrais method, is exactly as it sounds; you are increasing your self-awareness via movement. Specifically, you will break down more complex actions into parts in order to better understand how you move and react in various situations (strategy #1). Not only that, but you are given alternative paths of movement (strategy #2). Sometimes we are unable to feel a particular habit, and in this case, having a practitioner work directly with us can be beneficial (strategy #3).

Coming full circle back to building habits, Awareness Through Movement is something you need to incorporate into your daily (or at least weekly) life. I believe strongly that once you “build a habit of breaking your habits,” your body will thank you!

All habits are not equal. Some should be cultivated in order to be our best selves and others need to be unlearned in order to be those same best selves. Habits that lead to growth and good health can be achieved with practice and persistence. Habits that present obstacles to ourselves can be unlearned once we’re aware of them and seek to change. The challenge is that we need to be active participants in this process, and it will be a process (not instantaneous). But even a small step today can be the beginning of great changes!

For any questions on building and breaking habits, or on where to find Awareness Through Movement Lessons, contact me:

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