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How to make lifestyle changes stick

Do you find it hard to stick to healthy habits? You're not alone. Find out what it takes to make lifestyle changes last, and what to do if you fall off track.

Two signs saying old habits and new habits pointing in different directions.

After being diagnosed with a heart condition you might be given lots of information about how to prevent it from getting worse. Maybe you need to stop smoking, do more exercise, drink less alcohol or reduce stress.

But being told you need to make changes to your diet and lifestyle isn't easy – it's hard to change the choices we make every day. Of the 600,000 people undergoing bypass surgery every year in the United States 90 per cent of them hadn't changed their lifestyle to reduce the risk of their heart condition getting worse two years on1.

There's lots of information that tells us how to have a heart-healthy lifestyle. So why is it that even when we know we need to make changes, those changes don't seem to stick?

Find your why

A notepad with 'why?' written on it

After having one heart attack, there's a higher risk of having another. Most health professionals will use this as a motivator to help you change your lifestyle. When it comes to changing behaviour, the mental and emotional reasons for doing it are the most important. It's about fully understanding 'what's in it for me?'.

Understanding 'what's in it for me?' can help you find your 'why'. Your 'why' is your purpose that makes the facts about healthy eating, exercise and quitting smoking mean something. If you want to make changes that last, you need to do it for yourself.

Here's an example. After a heart attack, you're told to take medication to control your blood pressure. This might not be very motivating. But taking the medication to stay healthy, so you can spend more time your grandkids, is. This motivator is more emotional and becomes your reason to do it.

Another way to find your 'why' is to think about whether the harm a behaviour causes is worth it.

You could also try to see the benefits of quitting a habit.

For example:

  • being a non-smoker is better for your health and you'll save money
  • a healthy diet is better for your emotional and physical health
  • drinking less alcohol saves you money and is better for your emotional and physical health.

Questions to ask yourself to help find your 'why'

  • What matters to you?
  • What would change the most in your life if you quit smoking/drank less alcohol/spent less on takeaways?
  • Who (of the people around you) would be positively impacted by you doing this?
  • What do you want your health to be like a year from now?

There is no one-size fits all approach to making lifestyle changes after a heart event. Everyone needs to find what works for them.

Sustainable healthy lifestyle changes

When people think about lifestyle changes, they often think about 'breaking habits'. But you don't break habits; you replace old habits with new ones.

Humans are creatures of habit and most of what you do is habitual2. This means you don't think about it. So, it can be difficult to change habits you don't realise you do.

The first step is to work out where you are in your journey of change. You may not be ready to act yet but that doesn't mean you won't get there.

Usually you’ll follow this change process:

  1. Precontemplation: you’re not ready to make the change yet
  2. Contemplation: you think about making the change
  3. Preparation: you plan and get ready to make the change
  4. Action: you make the change
  5. Maintenance: you keep going.

Along the way you may relapse and go back to an old habit. This is completely normal.

Dealing with relapses

When you're trying to build new habits, life can get in the way. A busy day could lead to skipping the gym and ordering a takeaway. When you're stressed, it's easy to go back to old habits. Don't be too hard on yourself if this happens.

A relapse doesn't need to be permanent and can be learnt from. Focus on the process rather than the end goal. It'll feel easier to achieve.

Family on the beach at sunset

How to make lifestyle changes stick

1. Find your 'why'

It's important to find your 'why'. Your 'why' motivates you. External factors can motivate you for a while, but when you're driven by a 'why' you believe in, then the motivation is almost endless.

2. Planning and preparation

Once you find your 'why' write down where you want to be. Then find what you enjoy. This is important because forming new habits is a journey. It can take on average 66 days for a new habit to really stick3-4. That needs ongoing motivation and commitment, which is easier if it's something you enjoy.

Be proactive and change your home and/or workspace to make healthy habits normal. Remove anything that may tempt you from your new habits and distract you from your 'why'. 

3. Start small

Even the smallest things can create change. Starting small is a great way to help you find new things you'll enjoy. 

You can add small changes to your existing habits. 'Habit stacking' can help you start something new. For example, leaving your medication next to your toothbrush or by the kettle in the kitchen, somewhere you automatically go.

4. Document your journey

Documenting your journey helps you see the results and benefits that small changes make to your life.

How you document this might depend on your 'why'. For example, you might have an idea for what you want to do with the money saved from not buying cigarettes. Or, you may start to track how far you walk or jog each week.

You might also choose to track how you feel through your journey.

5. Celebrate all progress

Share your journey with those around you and celebrate your milestones, big and small. Having support helps to keep you accountable to what you want to achieve. It also means you have people to share your progress with along the way. Celebrate every small change as you go.

"Success is a series of small wins"

6. Manage stress and emotions

Our brain likes to keep things the same and pushing against that to create new habits is hard. Change can be hard, and challenges will come up along the way. Your 'why' is an important tool to keep yourself in a positive state of mind when you do come across challenges.

Use everyday tools like physical activity, reading, writing and talking to people to manage stress and emotions along the way. Think about what causes stress and try to remember where you are in your journey towards where you want to be.

7. Talk to your health professionals about your 'why'

When you're ready, share your 'why' with your health professional. It can change the way you talk to them. Knowing your 'why' will give them a better understanding about what motivates you and how they can support you.

Lower your risk of heart disease

Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

As a Registered Dietitian, I know that food gives us so much more than just nutrients. I am driven to simplify nutrition messages, educate on all aspects of food and support Kiwis to develop a love of food that helps them stay healthy throughout their life.


1. Miller E. IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook conference 2004.

2. Wood W, Quinn JM. Habits in Everyday Life: Thought, Emotion and Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2002 Vol 83. No 6. 1281-1297. 

3. Maltz M. Psycho-Cybernetics, A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life. Mass Market Paperback – August 15, 1989.

4. Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2010. Vol 40. No 6. 998-1009.