How long does it take for health to become a habit? 

For people who’re used to eating for flavor or comfort and not getting much physical activity, starting a healthier lifestyle can feel like a drag. Healthy eating and exercise can become habitual after a while, but how long does it take? When does health become a habit, and how can you help the process along?

When Habits Form

There’s an idea that it takes between two and three weeks to form or break a habit, if you perform it daily. If you don’t drink enough water, for example, this belief holds that staying hydrated will become a habit if you’re careful to do so for two to three weeks straight. Unfortunately, it’s not true.

In a study published by in the European Journal of Social Psychology by University College London researcher Philippa Lally, researchers studied the behavior of 96 participants for 12 weeks. Each participant was asked to pick up a new habit — like drinking a bottle of water with meals — and report how the habit felt, and how consistently they did it. At the end of the study, Lally and her team found that it took an average of over 2 months to establish a habit. This average comes from a range of 18 to about 250 days.

That means that the amount of time it takes to establish a habit varies widely between individuals — from two and a half weeks to about eight months. 

Making Habits Stick

Since it can take a while for healthy behavior to become a habit, you can’t rely on it to become automatic for you right away. You have to be able to keep up the habit in the meantime, to give your brain a chance to make the behavior habitual. There are some tricks you can use to help your brain and body turn health into a habit:

Choose One New Habit at a Time

You might be tempted to revamp your entire lifestyle at once, but this can be counterproductive. Pick one new habit, and dedicate your willpower to that. It’ll make it easier to stay motivated and remember to do it regularly.

Tie Your New Habit to Old Behavior

Do you ever use your phone or alarm clock to set reminders for yourself? Maybe you need to take medication or perform another task that’s easily forgotten about. Tying a new habit to an old behavior is a bit like setting a reminder in your brain. It can go something like this: “After I eat, I will wash the dishes immediately,” or, “After I get ready for bed, I’ll journal,” or even, “After I drop the kids off at school, I’ll go for a run.” This way, the existing behaviors serve as a marker for the new ones.

Start Small.

If you’re currently a bit of a couch potato, trying to make a daily 3 mile run a habit probably won’t stick. You want your initial goal to be small — focus on going for a run at all, and make the act of running a habit. Don’t worry about distance or time yet.

This goes for other goals, as well. If you want to stay hydrated, focus first on having an extra glass of water a day. If you’re starting from zero, don’t set yourself up for disappointment by setting a high bar.

Stick to It.

Consistency is the key here. You can’t make a behavior automatic if you don’t do it. Commit to following through with this habit for a minimum of two months. Some habits, like drinking water, are best done every day. Others, like hitting the gym, maybe more suitable for two to three times a week. Either way, whatever healthy habit you pick, stay with it. 

Have a Contingency Plan.

Life is going to get in the way. You might have to work late and miss your after-work gym session. It might rain, keeping you from running. Have a plan in place for when things go awry, so you aren’t tempted to use them as an excuse to let your habit fall by the wayside.

For example, if you miss a gym session, do weight workouts at home. If it rains, try doing an aerobic session following a video in your living room. Do what you can to keep these habits up, even if they have to be slightly different for a day or so.

Consciously working to make healthy behaviors habitual is one of the best things you can do for your body and your mind. If you intentionally set out to create a habit, choose that habit with care, start small, and stick to it, you’ll find that your brain takes over after a period of time. Before you know it, following through with this healthy behavior will be automatic.