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As we continually perform a behaviour – say, smoking socially or texting while driving – neural pathways in our brains form new patterns, according to a recent MIT review. Once the prompt arrives, your brain shifts into autopilot. “Situational cues bring out habits that are deeply embedded,” says Ellen Peters, PhD, who studies risk perceptions at Decision Research, a psychological research firm in the US. “When that habit surfaces, it’s hard not to let it overcome you.” The problem, of course, is that these inclinations can endanger your health. So follow our guide to rid yourself, once and for all, of a few distinctly unhealthy habits.
If you're a smoker While regular smokers have a chemical component fuelling their addiction, people who smoke only occasionally succumb mainly to social and environmental triggers. “The most powerful prompt is often being around other people who are smoking or drinking,” says Dr Michael Fiore, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention. In stressful situations, a cigarette can put you at ease: Ten minutes after you take a puff, your brain releases a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can make you feel relaxed and happy.
Lighting up even a few times a week is still poisoning yourself. “There’s no lower limit of exposure to tobacco smoke that is safe – period,” says Dr Richard D. Hurt, director of the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center. In fact, a single cigarette can almost instantly injure the inner walls of your blood vessels. That damage can lead to heart disease and blood clots. Looming in the background, of course, is also the risk of developing a full-blown addiction. Some research suggests that about a quarter of “occasional” smokers will go full-time.
Break the habit: Find a substitute
When you can’t steer clear of the smokestacks, benign substitutes can work wonders, Dr Hurt says. For instance, grab a drink stirrer and hold it between your fingers like a cigarette. Set it between your lips. This keeps your mouth and hands busy. And carry nicotine gum – it can mimic the effects of nicotine from cigarettes, Dr Fiore says.
If you're a couch potato Grabbing some snacks and firing up the TV after work is okay once or twice a week. But every night? Bad habit. “People who are under high levels of stress and who may not have a large network of friends are prone to isolating themselves after work,” says Leonard Jason, PhD, a DePaul University psychologist who studies the challenges of breaking bad habits. “Eventually, it becomes their default.”
Slumming it on the couch plays havoc with your body and brain. For one, people can consume up to 71 percent more food while they’re glued to the tube, so it’s no surprise that watching more than 19 hours a week increases your odds of being overweight by 97 per cent, according to a 2007 Belgian study. And researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that for every hour of TV beyond 80 minutes that you watch daily, your risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases by a whopping 30 per cent.
Break the habit: Buy a digital video recorder
If you have a digital video recorder, use it to record shows, and simply start your descent to bedtime later in the evening, Jason suggests. Zipping through the commercials can cut about half an hour off every two hours of couch time. Then, at least three times a week, make after-work plans that specifically involve people – meet friends for dinner or join a recreational sports team. “Finding alternatives that you can do with others helps reduce passive TV viewing,” Jason says.