How to Build Healthy Habits That Actually Last

Pittsburgh Dietitian Blog Posts
January 11, 2024

This morning, the gym was PACKED. So many new faces popped up on treadmills, the bench, and the squat rack, beaming with pride and possibility. You guessed it – it’s January.

I used to get annoyed by the gym crowding in the New Year. Lately, I’ve come to the all-too-obvious truth that I was once a newbie too. Now, I try my best to be patient, friendly, and helpful to the newcomers in the hopes that I could be part of the reason they decide to stick it out past February this year.

If you have ever tried to develop a new habit, like a gym routine, you know how much friction there is. The first few days you might be energized by your new goal, but slowly the very real barriers to you and your new habit can slowly get in the way. Eventually you go a week without a single workout and think, “maybe next year. I’m just too busy right now.”

Or maybe you aren’t too busy necessarily, but you merely forget most days. I recall trying to implement a regular flossing routine a few years ago, and my biggest barrier was remembering to do the dang thing. My current routine was already so ingrained in my brain, trying to add this new thing was a challenge. (Confession: I still don’t floss regularly.)

No matter what your biggest barrier is to building a new habit AND making it stick, I’m here to help. As a registered dietitian, it is my job to help clients develop habits that are impactful to their health, and make those habits last a lifetime.

Let me be clear. This is no 75 hard or 12 week challenge. This is evidence-based advice from a behavior change expert. You won’t transform your body in 30 days or become spiritually enlightened overnight. You will simply start to see little changes over time. Hopefully by the end of next year the new habit you are trying to implement will be as easy as brushing your teeth (and hopefully more easy than flossing. Okay, I’m done with the dental health references.)

Step 1: Pick your habit.

Start with what type of person you are trying to become.

Example: I want to become a healthy person.

Now, think about the daily routines of that person you are trying to become so you can get more specific. I like to use a bit of leverage here. Think of one habit that would give you an outsized return on your time and effort.

Example: I want to become a person who exercises regularly.

Fantastic. Pay attention to the wording. It is focused on who you want to be, not what you want to do. This is what we call identity-based habits. The idea that you are not only taking on this new habit, but it is going to be part of who you are. When you incorporate a habit as part of your identity, it is much easier to stick to it.

Step 2: Get specific.

What is the smallest version of the habit you want to develop? Start there.

Example: I am going to get my heart rate up for 5 minutes, 5 times per week.

I know what you’re thinking. 5 minutes?! I might as well do nothing! Your goal might seem not as effortful as you desire at first, but that is the point. It has to be so easy at first that there is hardly ever a reason you can’t do it. I recommend doing short spurts more often at first to help you develop consistency.

Getting specific with our goals is so important, because we will be using that to build a system later on to make sure it happens.

Step 3: Create a system that supports your habit.

I ran track in high school. I was running consistently 5 to 6 times per week and had some of the best split times of my life. Looking back it makes sense that I was so consistent with my running, and not just because I was young and full of energy. I had systems that supported that routine. I had practices, meets, coaches, and a training plan to keep me accountable.

As adults, we have to create systems that support our success. This means making the habits we are trying to build easier, and the habits we are trying to break harder.  

Trying to eat more produce? Put a fruit bowl on your kitchen table.

Trying to order less takeout? Disable your food delivery apps, like DoorDash or UberEats.

Trying to exercise? Get a trainer or a buddy or even sign up for an event like a 5k race!

Here are some tips for creating a system that supports your habit, based on James Clear’s book Atomic Habits:

  • Make it obvious.
  • Make it attractive.
  • Make it easy.
  • Make it rewarding.

If we use the “getting your heart rate up 5 times per week” habit, this could look like:

  1. Make it obvious Putting an exercise mat in the living room.
  2. Make it attractive Do an exercise that you enjoy, like dancing.
  3. Make it easy Keep it to 5 minutes at first, and do it at the same time every day (ideally when you typically have the most energy).
  4. Make it rewarding Put a gold star sticker on your calendar for every day you complete the habit so you can track your progress.

Bonus Tip: Try habit stacking, the concept of pairing a habit you want to build with a habit you already do. I tried this by placing my vitamins on top of my coffee machine, so I couldn’t start the coffee machine without taking the vitamins. I never forget my coffee in the morning, and once I had paired those habits together, I could never forget my vitamins either!

Hopefully you feel prepared to start developing your own goals, the habits that support them, and creating a system to make it happen. If you found these tips helpful, I would love to know! Email me at

Wishing you a happy, healthy New Year.

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