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How to form healthy habits (and break bad ones)

Woman running along nature trail

By Michael Feder

At a glance

  • According to the National Institutes of Health, “Habits can arise through repetition. They are a normal part of life, and are often helpful.”
  • Stress often leads to unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol, overeating and sedentary behavior.
  • One of the best ways to break unhealthy habits is to change your routine or your environment.
  • University of Phoenix offers several degrees in psychology for individuals interested in gaining a deeper understanding of human behavior. 

The new year has come and gone, which means we are about to decide whether to stick with our New Year’s resolutions. It doesn't matter if you’re looking to get to the gym more or push through a stack of novels: carrying a strong momentum into February and beyond can be tough.

This can be especially true of health goals. A weight-loss or workout goal you set Jan. 1 can lose luster as the year rolls on. There are so many reasons, from work to personal life, to put off health goals.  

Committing to your health goals will likely require you to develop new health habits in place of unhealthy ones. In this article, we’ll discuss how to do exactly that. 


A degree in psychology can help cultivate a deeper understanding of how the human mind works. Explore our offerings!


So, what are habits, really?

Habits are both common and, often, unintentional. Someone can go through their entire morning routine, for instance, while barely conscious of it.

Being so ubiquitous, habits can sneak up on us. And when they’re unhealthy habits, our lack of awareness can make changing them all the more difficult.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Habits can arise through repetition. They are a normal part of life, and are often helpful.”

So true! When habits are healthy, they can make otherwise difficult things much easier. As the NIH notes, “When behaviors become automatic, it gives us an advantage, because the brain does not have to use conscious thought to perform the activity.”

To return to our previous example, if someone doesn’t even think about their morning routine, then they’re very likely to follow through with it every day. It can be much more difficult for someone intentionally starting a new habit, because it requires conscious effort. 

Why do we form unhealthy habits?

The connection between stress and unhealthy behavior is well-established. From smoking to overeating to binge drinking, there are a number of ways people choose poorly when looking for ways to feel better.

It’s not hard to see why. When stressed, a satisfying snack delivers the necessary rush of dopamine we crave. We may know that stress eating or lying on the couch all night watching TV is unhealthy, but the comfort these behaviors provide can help reduce stress — at least in the short term. But left unchecked, they can develop into bad habits.

Understanding how stress affects habits is an important part of controlling your behavior. As the National Library of Medicine notes, “Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health.”

Stress can take several forms, from acute (like oncoming traffic when you’re trying to cross the street) to chronic (think bad financial situations or problems at work). Chronic stress can be particularly harmful, leading to health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

If you find your bad habits show up when you’re feeling stressed, then dealing with the source of that stress can help you resolve the habits. That may mean tackling a stressful project head-on or making a plan toward a better financial situation.

Some things are out of your control, but that doesn’t mean they don’t stress you out. Taking some time to stop and breathe can definitely help alleviate stress in the moment. Focus on the things that you can resolve or ameliorate and make a plan to do so. 

How to break unhealthy habits

According to the NIH, one of the best ways to break unhealthy habits is to change your routine or your environment. For example, it may be difficult to resist the temptation of an unhealthy snack if you walk by a snack machine every day on your way to work. Taking a different route can help you avoid this temptation in the first place, which makes conquering the habit much easier.

The NIH also suggests visualizing not giving in to a temptation. Imagine yourself walking by the candy machine without stopping. Where will you look instead? What will you be thinking about? How will you feel? What will you smell? How will you feel later on when you haven’t eaten the candy?

Practicing visualization can go a long way toward avoiding or breaking an unhealthy habit. 

How do we develop positive habits?

Portrait of Jason Richardson

We reached out to University of Phoenix alumnus Dr. Jason Richardson to answer that question.

Richardson is a former professional BMX racer turned psychologist who helps athletes and business executives perform at their mental best. He works with clients in high-performance, highly competitive environments. Yet you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete or a CEO to change negative habits into positive ones.

“The bottom line is priority,” Richardson says. “It takes time to build a career or get in shape. This is going to be made even harder if you aren’t sure of why you’re doing it.”

Richardson highlights that it’s important to center your priorities and where you see yourself. Don’t just work out for the sake of working out. Work toward something that’s important to you.

Maybe you want to walk up the stairs to your apartment without breaking a sweat. Maybe you want to compete in a marathon. Whatever it is, having a specific goal can help orient you in the right direction while you form healthier habits.

This might require you to have a hard conversation with yourself. Ask why you have your particular goals. An honest answer can get you through the toughest parts of developing positive habits.

“It’s about taking ownership,” Richardson says. “If working out to you is just another thing you have to do, then it will feel like a chore.”

Where do I start?

Everybody’s habits and goals are unique, but health and wellness goals are frequently at the top of people’s lists. If that’s you, we want to help!

Since making time can sometimes be a stumbling block to developing a new habit, why not start small? Here, we share links to three introductory exercise routines, each focused on different health goals.

For those looking to de-stress '

Yoga is a great way to unwind by bringing your attention to your body. It’s also time-effective, so you can get a routine in without messing up your schedule.

Check out this link for more!

For those looking for a tough workout...

High intensity interval training (HIIT) packs explosive workouts into a short window of time. HIIT is great for raising your heart rate and energizing you for the rest of your day.

Check out this nine-minute workout!

For those trying to lose weight '

Exercising every day, as well as adopting a healthier diet, can help people meet their weight-loss goals. We’ve picked out a daily routine, specifically designed to help with weight loss.

Check out this 15-minute workout!

Ready to get started?

We hope this article helps you conquer your bad habits and accomplish your resolutions (and then some!).

Maybe your healthy habit is continuing your education or learning something new. If so, University of Phoenix (UOPX) offers a range of degree programs as well as professional development offerings.

If you want to gain a deeper understanding of human behavior, a degree in psychology might be a good fit. UOPX offers bachelor’s degrees in both Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Applied Psychology. These degrees cover the basics of psychology while teaching you how to apply your knowledge to the workplace. Visit to learn more!

Interested in how you can improve your mindset and develop healthier habits, check out our blog for more!

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