Lockdown: the perfect time to build new habits

Fiona Moncrieff
Written by

Fiona Moncrieff

15th May 2020

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, many of us have gone into ‘survival mode’, where we’re trying to work from home with a new routine, manage children who aren’t at school, and deal with the stress and grief that comes as a result of a worldwide pandemic. Losing weight or starting a healthy lifestyle journey might be the last thing on our mind.

However, big life changes can present a unique opportunity to lay down new habits that we can continue in the future. This doesn’t mean we have to completely overhaul our current lifestyle, but instead, we can start making a few tweaks that can add up to big results in the long run.

This guide will discuss why now might actually be a good time to start building healthy habits, how we can do this in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty, and how to continue these healthy habits after the coronavirus lockdown is over.

The influence of our environment on habits

One of the key functions of our brain is to find and use patterns as shortcuts, so we don’t become overwhelmed with all the information we have to process every day.

Habits are an example of a ‘shortcut’ used by the brain. They get coded into our brains to be used when certain situations arise, so we don’t have to waste valuable cognitive processing power for every single action we take. It’s estimated that over 40% of the behaviours we do each day are automatic.

Performing an automatic habit is a three-step process that happens time and time again, forming a loop. This loop consists of a ‘trigger’, ‘behaviour’, and ‘reward’.

For example, when a person starts smoking, they might light a cigarette each time they have an afternoon cup of coffee. The ‘trigger’ is the cup of coffee, the ‘behaviour’ is lighting a cigarette, and the ‘reward’ is a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction. Once they repeat this process over and over again, it becomes an automatic response to light a cigarette when having a coffee – they do this without even thinking.

Years later, they decide to quit smoking. However, each time they have a cup of coffee, the craving to reach for a cigarette still hits. This is because these habit triggers are internalised in our brain.

However, it’s possible to stop a habit by interrupting the habit loop. This can be done by either swapping the behaviour or removing the trigger by re-engineering our physical environment. If we take the example above, re-engineering our physical environment to remove the trigger would mean changing our routine to take out the afternoon coffee.

Key points:

  • Habits are created by establishing automatic pathways in the brain
  • The habit loop is made up of three stages: trigger, behaviour, and reward
  • One strategy we can use to stop a habit loop is to remove the ‘trigger’ from our physical environment.

Why is it the ideal time to build healthy habits?

Big life changes, such as moving house, starting a new job, retiring, or relocating to a new city can be the best times to stop old habits and start building new ones. Working from home in social isolation is another example of a life change that presents a unique opportunity to change our habits. This is a unique time because we don’t have to fight many of our normal habit triggers, as they’re no longer part of our daily routine.

For example, you might buy a morning coffee each time you walk past Costa Coffee on the way into work, but since you’ve been working from home you no longer need that morning coffee.

Likewise, you might have built a habit of a 3pm cup of tea and biscuit at the office, but since being away from the office you’ve not had the same craving for something sweet in the afternoon.

A team of researchers took a group of university students and applied this theory. They found that those students who moved universities were most likely to change their daily habits. These students also found it much easier to change their habits compared to the control group because they didn’t have the same exposure to their usual habit triggers.

Key points:

  • Big life changes can present unique opportunities to establish new habits
  • This is because the usual triggers in our physical environment are automatically removed.

New habits we can build in lockdown

Understandably, the new lockdown and social distancing measures are immensely challenging for many of us. However, we can look at the silver lining: this big life change presents an opportunity to break bad habits and start establishing new ones.

Here are some examples of new habits you may have started doing already while in lockdown:

1. Meal planning

Meal planning has become essential with social distancing measures preventing regular trips to the supermarket. Despite challenges in accessing certain ingredients, we still need to plan what we’ll buy ahead of time each week.

You might notice you’ve started a routine of going to the supermarket on the same day each week. With some ingredient shortages, you may have also become better at using up what you’ve got in the fridge or pantry and reducing food waste.

Meal planning is one of the best ways to stay on track with healthy lifestyle changes. It prevents last-minute ready meals or takeaways, which are often packed with added sugars and refined carbohydrates.

2. Cooking from scratch

With restaurants and cafes closed and most of us working from home, the lockdown has meant we’re cooking significantly more meals and snacks from scratch.

You might have started exploring new recipe books and websites for weekly inspiration and trying some more challenging recipes. Many more of us are also baking at home more than usual.

Cooking from scratch allows us to have more control over what goes into our food and means we’re less likely to eat processed foods with hidden sugars. Research shows that cooking at home and cooking from scratch are associated with a healthier diet.

3. Home workouts

Another craze that’s taken the internet and social media by storm is home workouts. With gyms closed and limitations on the amount of time we can spend outside, it’s no surprise we’re looking for alternative ways to exercise.

Some of us may have also become a lot more adventurous with the types of exercise we’re now doing. We might be experimenting with pilates, yoga, dance workouts, or strength training. The lockdown may have also helped us realise that exercise can easily be done at home with little or no equipment.

4. Engaging with nature

Interestingly, despite restrictions on how often we can go outside, many people have reported increasing the amount of quality time they’re spending outdoors.

This is probably because we’re no longer commuting, going to the gym, attending social gatherings, or taking our children to school or sporting events. We’re also optimising on our allotted outdoor time to get some fresh air and sunshine.

Without the usual hustle and bustle of traffic and pedestrians, it’s the perfect time to be reconnecting with nature.

Exposure to bright light through outdoor exercise has been found to be associated with better mental wellbeing and reduced stress. Bright light is already a standard treatment for seasonal depression, but there are studies that indicate it may be an effective treatment for nonseasonal depression as well.

Another benefit of exercising outdoors is increased vitamin D, which is a fat-soluble nutrient that’s essential for human survival. The best source of vitamin D is natural sunlight. Vitamin D has also been shown to help regulate normal levels of serotonin and support a healthy immune system.

Key points:

  • We may have already established new, healthy habits during lockdown without realising it
  • Restrictions on supermarket visits mean we’re more likely to be planning our meals ahead of time and cooking from scratch
  • Social distancing measures also mean we’ll be limiting our time outdoors and looking for new ways to exercise at home
  • Despite restrictions on outdoor activities, many of us are finding we’re appreciating our time in nature more, which is beneficial for our mental health.

How can we continue our healthy habits after lockdown?

Once we’ve experienced the benefits of our new healthy habits, it’s important to think about how we can continue these once the lockdown lifts.

Firstly, try to tie your habits to triggers that won’t change once things return to normal. For example, if you’re meal planning once a week, pick a day and time that you’ll be able to continue post-lockdown. This might be Sunday morning after breakfast.
Similarly, if you’d like to continue working out at home after lockdown, think of a trigger that won’t change, like making your bed in the morning. Although it may require some tweaking (i.e. you might need to wake up 30mins earlier than usual), keeping the same trigger will help your new behaviour become more automatic.

If you’ve enjoyed walking each day and getting in touch with nature, think about how you could incorporate this into your daily routine in the future. For example, could you walk part of the way on your commute to the office? Or go out for a 30min walk during your lunch break? If you’ve particularly enjoyed a certain type of workout that you’ve tried at home, like yoga, you could look into studios or gyms that offer classes.

Although our lifestyles will undoubtedly be busier once lockdown is over, we can keep our habits going by thinking ahead about ways to schedule them into our routine.

Key points:

  • It’s important to consider how we can continue our healthy habits post-lockdown
  • Try to trigger your new habits to an event and time in your routine that will stay the same after lockdown ends
  • Think about ways you can incorporate new activities that you’re enjoying into your usual routine, like walking to work

What about bad habits I’ve formed since the lockdown?

Although there may be a few healthy habits we’ve started since the coronavirus outbreak, the stress and uncertainty may also have triggered new habits that we’d like to stop.

Second Nature recently performed a survey, which included over 1800 participants, to gather further insights into how our lifestyle habits have changed since the coronavirus outbreak. Interestingly, the survey found that over 50% of us are eating more snacks than usual. On top of this, almost 50% of us reported eating when bored and 25% felt out of control with our eating habits. There were also reported increases in alcohol intake, which is reflected in data on our shopping habits.

Because we know these are areas many of us are struggling with at the moment, we’ve put together specific guides to tackle each one:

Take home message

  • A potential silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic is that it provides a good opportunity to start building new healthy habits
  • This is because our routines are likely to be very different to usual, meaning the triggers for our old habits will no longer be there
  • Without realising it, we may have already started building new, healthier habits during lockdown, such as meal planning and cooking from scratch
  • By selecting a trigger for these new habits that will remain the same after lockdown, we’ll be more likely to continue them in the future
  • There may also be habits we’ve started since the lockdown that we’d prefer not to continue in the future. We’ve put together specific advice to tackle a few of these above.
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