How to set a healthy daily routine and stick to it
Published January 2023 | 8 min read
Expert contributors James Clear, behaviour science expert; Dr Tracey Zielinski, clinical psychologist
Words by Charmaine Yabsley
In the new year, many of us want to create routines for better health, sleep and fitness. Here’s how to make and stick to a healthy daily routine.
Despite our best intentions that this will be the year we finally stick to an exercise routine or step up our home cooking efforts, 64% of us abandon our New Year’s resolutions within the first month.
The good news is you can set yourself up for success when it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes.
Building healthy routines means figuring out which new daily habits you want to include and keeping yourself accountable for following through on those new behaviours. Sticking to a healthy daily routine is an important part of preventive healthcare, as outlined in The National Preventive Health Strategy, which aims to improve health literacy skills of all Aussies.
To get started, it’s helpful to understand some of the psychology of creating new habits. James Clear, behaviour science expert, says our brain’s tendency to prioritise the present moment means that most of us can’t rely on good intentions alone. “When you make a plan – to lose weight, write a book, or learn a language – you are actually making plans for your future self. And when you envision what you want your life to be like, it is easy to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits.”
The problem is, he says, instant gratification usually wins: we’ll prioritise eating chocolate over a healthy snack, or a sleep-in over an early morning walk. “As a general rule, the more immediate pleasure you get from an action, the more strongly you should question whether it aligns with your long-term goals.”
Tips to help you stick to a routine
This is where you build a new habit by identifying a task you already do each day, and then stack your new behaviour on top. For example: while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil for your morning coffee (a current habit), pull your workout clothes out of your wardrobe and lay them on your bed (a new habit). This makes it easier for you to get dressed in your joggers and t-shirt and head out for a brisk walk.
You can try habit stacking with any new habit you want to add into your routine, just remember to be specific with the old habit and new one. For example: “When I sit down to eat my dinner, I’ll drink a big glass of water before I pick up my knife and fork” or, “After I close my work laptop, I’ll listen to a 10-minute meditation.”
These are simple ways you can keep track of whether you stick to a habit or not each day. You can use a notepad and pen, or wearable tech like step counters or apps on your smartwatch or phone to track your exercise, sleep and weight. Tracking your habits can help you look back to see clear evidence of your progress.
“Habit tracking also helps keep your eye on the ball: you’re focused on the process rather than the result,” says James.
Allow room for error
The key to success, says clinical psychologist Dr Tracey Zielinski, is to keep going, even when you have off days or skip a few workouts. “If you are trying to implement a new regimen, periodically allowing yourself time off is helpful,” she says. “If, however, the new routine works for you and you aren’t feeling restricted, then maintaining consistency will help the habit form more quickly.”
How to create a morning routine
How you start your day matters. Research shows a regular morning routine can help you feel more positive about the world, perform better at work, reduce procrastination and boost your confidence.
A good morning routine looks different for everybody and should work with your current lifestyle. “When and where you choose to insert a habit into your daily routine can make a big difference,” says James. “If you’re trying to add meditation into your morning routine but mornings are chaotic, then that may be the wrong place and time.”
To start thinking about what your new routine could look like, write down three words that describe how you want to feel in the morning. This could be 'energised', 'calm' and 'organised'. For each word, add a new habit that helps you feel that way. When you wake up, you could do a 15-minute workout class that helps you feel energised. After your morning coffee, you could add in a relaxing hot shower. Then take five minutes to write down what’s on your mind or what you’re grateful for to organise your thoughts.
Michael Mosley, TV journalist, presenter, former doctor and author recommends adding in the habit of a cold shower first thing. “After your normal warm shower, turn the tap to the coldest setting and breathe slowly and steadily for 10–60 seconds. Repeatedly undergoing the mild stressor of immersion in cold water will help you cope with other stressors as well,” he says.
Also, making time for breakfast is a must, experts agree. Studies show those who eat a morning meal are more physically active, less likely to be overweight or obese, make better food choices and are more focused throughout the day. If you’re short on time, a protein-rich breakfast, overnight oats, or simple fruit salad with yoghurt, nuts and seeds can be made the night before in a container to grab on the go.
How to create a workout routine
Whatever your fitness level, setting a tangible goal like 10,000 daily steps or walking 3km four times a week helps you plan a weekly workout routine to help you hit your target.
To set your week up for success and add accountability, add your workouts into your calendar, the way you would with a dentist appointment. On Sunday nights, plan your week and see where you can slot your workouts in and write down what you will do.
While the best time of day to exercise is any time that works for you, moving first thing in the morning means it’s done and there’s less time to talk yourself out of your daily run or walk. Lay your workout clothes and shoes out the night before, so you don’t have to think too much about it.
According to Michael, “exposure to bright daylight also triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called serotonin, a natural mood-booster. As well as exposing you to lots of light, any walk – short, long, fast or slow – will strengthen muscles and bones, reduce joint and muscular pain, burn a few calories and increase energy levels.”
How to create a self-care routine
A major benefit of creating a self-care or relaxation routine is to regularly tackle stress levels so they don’t overwhelm you or become a problem.
More than just a term to describe candlelit baths, it’s recognised by health professionals that good self-care can “help prevent chronic disease, and reduce the overall cost of healthcare”, says John Bell, AM, chair of the Australian Self-Care Alliance, a collaboration between healthcare consumers, health promotion charity, policy experts and industry partners, including HCF.
Good stress is a powerful driver to keep your mind focused and help you get things done. Bad stress or prolonged stress has a negative effect on your body and mind and can increase your risk of health problems, including digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension, anxiety and depression.
As well as scheduling in weekly or monthly self-care practices like massage and yoga classes, daily techniques like slowing down and breathing at regular intervals is a simple way to bring on calm.
“One of the most effective ways to switch from distress to relax mode is to slow and deepen your breathing, preferably breathing into your diaphragm,” says Tracey. Some smart watches have an inbuilt breathing tracker that reminds you to stop and deep breathe at regular intervals during the day, or you can use apps like Headspace or Breathwrk.
Other relaxation habits to add in include regularly catching up with friends, eating your meals mindfully, stopping for five- or 10-minute breaks, taking time for hobbies, laughing and singing or dancing around the house.
How to create a healthy eating routine
Most of us are targeted with relentless ‘new year, new you’ ads in the new year, but nourishing your body is about making sure you’re getting enough nutrients.
If you’re keen to make a positive change to your diet, start slowly by focusing on adding one or two healthier habits each week – you could cook two meals from scratch if you’ve been relying on takeaways or focus on eating an extra vegetable at dinner each night. According to the Australian Dietary guidelines, adults should aim to eat from these five groups every day:
- Vegetables, including different types and colours.
- Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties, like breads, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles, polenta, couscous, oats, quinoa and barley.
- Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans.
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat.
A study in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity found that meal planning is associated with a healthier diet and less obesity. “If you plan your meals, you are priming yourself for success,” says Tracey. “Make sure you have everything you need and pre-prepare what you can. The easier you make it for yourself, the easier it is to achieve.”
Take a look at some healthy recipe inspiration here. If you need more support to maintaining a healthy weight and staying active, we’re here to help. Healthy Weight for Life is an 18-week support program for eligible HCF members with hospital cover who are overweight and have osteoarthritis* or are at risk of developing a chronic condition^. You’ll get a guided nutrition plan and advice from experts to help you along your health journey.
How to create a night time routine
Around 60% of us experience sleep issues, and getting on top of them is the key to feeling rested enough to work on all your daily health goals.
“Be consistent with your bedtime and when you get up,” says Tracey. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and heavy meals for a few hours before going to bed. “When you go to bed, leave your devices outside, practise deep breathing to relax your body and distract your mind.”
Emptying your mind of worries and writing down your to-do list for the following day may even send you off to sleep 15 minutes quicker.
Thanks to our partnership with Sleepfit Solutions, eligible HCF members+ can get a 20% discount on a 12 month subscription to the Sleepfit app designed to improve sleep and overall wellbeing.
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* Must have held hospital cover that covers joint replacement surgery for 2 months, have knee or hip osteoarthritis and a Body Mass Index of 28 and above. Clinical eligibility applies. See hcf.com.au/hwfl
^ Must have hospital cover, multiple lifestyle risk factors (e.g. smoking, physical inactivity, poor nutrition) and a Body Mass Index of 28 and above. Clinical eligibility applies. See hcf.com.au/hwfl
+ Eligible HCF members with hospital or extras cover. Excludes Overseas Visitors Health Cover. The cost is $23.90 for 12 months for HCF members (RRP is $29.90).
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