How to Build Healthy Habits to Achieve Your Goals

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Hadley Mendelsohn

Published 05/23/2024

Building healthy habits is all about getting informed, figuring out what you want to change, setting goals to put those ideas into action, and being consistent. It’s simple enough, but as with everything in life… easier said than done.

If you’ve found yourself here, that means you want to start implementing healthier habits. Or you’re at least considering it! Looking into what that entails is an essential first step to living a healthier life. That curiosity, in and of itself, is a healthy habit, so good on you. Ahead, read about healthy habits, and how to build them.


Healthy habits are pretty much exactly what they sound like: They’re little routine behaviors that stack up to impact your underlying health status for the better. We’ll get to some examples you can try in a bit, but first, let’s go over the benefits of choosing a healthy lifestyle with good habits. 

Adding healthy habits to your routine can lead to: 

  • Higher energy levels

  • More focus and better cognitive function 

  • Improved physical health 

  • More emotional balance and less stress 

  • Social connection and fulfillment 

After a long day, why would we want to spend even more energy on a workout class or preparing a healthy dinner? Though it seems like the easier option will always be opening the food delivery app or skipping the gym, once you get used to doing a new, healthier behavior, it becomes second nature. 

As one scientific review explains, it’s easier to stay healthy once you incorporate better habits because you start reaping the health benefits and feel better overall. Plus, those habits will start to require less energy over time. We’re all creatures of habit, to a certain extent, and once something becomes routine, you’re basically doing it on autopilot. Let’s talk a little about why that is.  

The two most important elements of creating healthy habits and making those new habits stick are consistency and goal-setting. 

Consistency

A 2019 study found that people who exercised at the same time every day worked out more frequently and for longer durations, so they were more likely to get the recommended amount of physical activity required for a healthy lifestyle (about 2.5 hours per week). Early morning exercises had a slight leg up, though any consistent time was still better than sporadic ones. 

Repeating a behavior at the same time, place, or environment helps form physical activity habits. This is because certain clues will trigger you to crave the behavior you participate in when you’re in that context (the same is true for bad habits, which is just one reason they can be so hard to break!). According to another study, it takes a little over seven weeks for a habit to be the most automatic. 

Goal Setting 

To start doing something consistently, it helps to set goals. According to one 2014 study, goal setting is crucial in implementing healthy exercise and dietary modifications. It provides the structure needed to initiate and maintain healthy habits over time. 

Keep reading to find out which healthy habits to set your goals around. 

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1. Eating a Balanced, Nutritious Diet 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, healthy eating habits are instrumental, and those who eat healthier ingredients and quantities are often healthier overall. 

As per the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, some things that lead to positive health outcomes include diets with more: 

  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Legumes

  • Whole grains

  • Low- or nonfat dairy 

  • Lean meats and poultry

  • Seafood

  • Nuts

  • Unsaturated vegetable oil

People who ate less red and processed meats and fewer sugary foods and beverages and refined grains were also considered healthier. Each of those foods has been linked to things like:

  • High cholesterol

  • High blood pressure

  • Type 2 diabetes

  • Other chronic diseases  

One review points out that diet-related weight management depends on how much food you eat (portion control can go a long way), what type of food you eat, and the timing of your meals. Generally, there is no single best strategy for weight management, but the consensus is that weight loss is largely ruled by burning more calories than you consume. It points out that most guidelines advise people with obesity to aim to burn about 500 to 750 calories more than they eat per day to see weight loss results. 

Some ways to incorporate a healthier diet include building the following habits: 

  • Have healthy foods available at home so it’s easier to prep healthy meals and snacks

  • Eat a good breakfast

  • Increase vegetable (and protein!) intake 

  • Limit sugary and fatty foods (especially processed ones, which can lead to obesity, as per a review)

  • Reduce fat in meals 

An additional study suggests that maintaining weight loss is easier when people have the same healthy eating habits on the weekends as they do on the weekdays. Both studies suggest that increasing physical activity is another key to weight loss maintenance, which brings us to the next healthy habit. 

2. Exercising Daily 

Like a healthy diet, maintaining a high level of physical fitness can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight and a better quality of life. It can also help prevent certain conditions, like heart disease. 

As per the USDA and HHS guidelines, adults should get at least:

  • 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week, or 

  • An hour and 15 minutes to 2 hours and 30 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity a week, or

  • Some combination of the two, plus strength-training exercises

As a rule of thumb, anything that gets your heart rate up is considered physical activity, and it’s best to break up these requirements throughout the week instead of trying to squeeze it all in at once.  

Of course, healthy diets and exercise don’t always lead to weight loss. In some cases, healthcare providers will prescribe weight loss medications to help in those efforts.

3. Increasing Mental Stimulation 

One scientific article explores how activities that stimulate cognitive function, like working on puzzles, reading, or playing games that require strategizing, can help stave off forms of dementia (like Alzheimer’s) and other age-related conditions. This is partly because the more active your brain is, the better your memory. 

Plus, it’s fun to learn, and one study even shows that the more you know, the better at decision-making you will be. 

4. Getting Enough Sleep

High-quality sleep is essential to both physical and mental well-being. As a 2023 medical review outlines, sleep can directly impact the following:

  • Heart health and weight

  • Mental well-being

  • Cognitive function

  • Immunity

  • Reproductive health

  • Hormone regulation

Though sleep needs tend to vary significantly with age, the sweet spot is somewhere between 7 to 9 hours for adults between 18 and 64, according to the review above. Another one also explains that poor sleep habits and obesity are correlated, possibly because of the impact of diet and exercise. 

So, if you’re currently getting more or less than that, it could be worth trying to change things up to improve your sleep hygiene. 

5. Staying Hydrated 

As the CDC explains, getting enough water is essential to pretty much all bodily functions. Staying hydrated helps with the following: 

  • Helping your body temperature stay regulated 

  • Keeping joints nice and lubricated 

  • Getting rid of toxins and waste through urine, stool, and sweat 

In addition, according to a 2016 review, staying hydrated might also help with weight loss by boosting your metabolism. So if weight loss is one of your goals, it’s a good idea to prioritize drinking more water.

6. Being More Social

Human beings are social creatures, which is so to say, we thrive on connection. As the CDC reports, having community, friendships, and family systems in place can play a role in improving mental health and even extending lifespan. Plus, spending time with loved ones is just fun, and having fun can be healthy, too. 

If you feel like you haven’t been social enough lately or just moved to a new city, try: 

  • Reaching out to old friends and scheduling a catch-up call or in-person hang out

  • Joining a local sports league, book club, or volunteer organization 

  • Choosing a day of the week to dedicate to social interaction so that you remember to make a priority more consistently

7. Getting Outside (and Away from Screens)

Stepping outside and breathing in fresh air is valuable, and if you can do so while surrounded by some greenery, even better. Research finds that spending at least 2 hours a week in nature shows major health benefits. 

Spending time in nature is harder when you have a hectic schedule, especially one that requires you to be inside and behind a desk. But accomplishing this goal could be as simple as going for a quick jaunt around the block between meetings on a busy work day or going on weekend hikes every so often (or a park stroll!). 

Limiting your social media and screen time and swapping it without outdoor fun can also be beneficial.

8. Practicing Mindfulness 

Whether in the form of breathing exercises, yoga, or meditation, mindfulness practices can help minimize anxiety, manage levels of stress, and help you stay present. 

If you’ve never tried any of these self-care practices, experiment with a few so you can find out which best facilitates relaxation for you. From there, you can decide which ones to form habits around. 

Taking small steps and making little changes to build healthy habits will ultimately make a big difference and lead to a healthier lifestyle! 

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