Opinion: when it comes to improving our health and wellbeing, we need to maintain behavioural changes and establish new habits

* Get fit, lose weight

Spend more time in nature and less time on screens

Drink less, move more

Worry less, meditate more

Spend less, save more

It's that time of year again. Most of us could write the script. As a middle-aged mental health professional with a PhD on adolescent time use and wellbeing, I know about and believe in the importance of living and being well. I know that I should eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily and I want to sleep for eight hours and walk 10,000 steps most days.

And yet, despite this knowledge and desire, I continually struggle to create and maintain a daily routine that I believe is best for my health and wellbeing. Knowing what to do is an important part of creating a healthy lifestyle. But knowing how to do it and doing it relatively consistently remains frustratingly elusive for many of us. Worryingly for me, this is despite 25 years of studying, thinking, reading, facilitating, lecturing on and researching the orchestration of daily life in context (my own and others)! 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Aisling Kenny speaks to people about their new year's resolutions

On a more positive note, this quarter-century of reflection and inquiry has given me some insights into how we may be able to help ourselves and others to flourish. As an occupational therapist, I have worked with young people in both in-patient and community mental health services. I noticed how these young people yearned to do ordinary daily activities that give shape and meaning to our lives.

In 2007, I captured, for the first time in Ireland, daily life for over 700 school-going young people across 28 schools in Cork city and county, inviting them to document how they spent their time and how that impacted on their wellbeing. This showed that participation in daily activities, singly and in combination, was associated with health-related quality of life. Moreover, many of the young people wrote of how they valued this rare opportunity to reflect on the rhythms and routines of their days.

Over the last 15 years in UCC, I have witnessed how Occupational Therapy students enjoy discovering themselves as occupational beings, by examining the personal blend of work, play, rest and sleep that fills their days, for good or bad. In the last year, I have designed and delivered ‘Everyday Matters’ sessions to second-level and third-level students, parents, educators and health professionals, inviting participants to begin by "pressing pause" to reflect on how they currently spend their time.

We need to think about how we do all the  activities that collectively shape our daily lives, across the 1,440 minutes of the day and seven days of the week

In feedback, participants liked the "explanation of what really matters in daily life" and "learning about little habits I can include in my life to improve my lifestyle". In the busyness of everyday life, the starting point for any lifestyle or behavioural change is "mesearch": self-awareness and the application of relevant, evidence-based research to one’s own life and circumstances.

Many health promotion campaigns focus on "what to do" (get enough exercise, eat well) or perhaps even more so on "what not to do" (don’t smoke, have risky sex, drink and drive, consume too much sugar).  Certainly, there is an urgent need for accurate information to be communicated creatively and consistently to different groups across society.

But as Sir Michael Marmot, Chair of the World Health Organisation Commission on Social Determinants of Health urges, we must think about lives and not just risk factors. Health information needs to be considered in the context of our everyday lives, where most of us consciously or unconsciously make trade-offs between what we need, want and have to do on a daily basis. We need to think beyond activities such as diet and exercise in isolation. We need to think about how we do all the ordinary and extraordinary activities that collectively shape our daily lives, across the 1,440 minutes of the day and seven days of the week.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Philip Boucher-Hayes talks about the What Are You Eating? TV show and going vegan for a month

Moreover, we must be attuned to the conditions into which we are born and in which we grow, live, work and age. Canadian occupational therapists Rebecca Gewurtz and colleagues have conceptualised this in their Do-Live-Well health promotion framework, in which they consider how daily experiences, activity patterns and contexts interact and influence health and wellbeing, for individuals and societies.

Such personal insights into existing activity patterns and their relationship with wellbeing coupled with scientific knowledge create a solid foundation for developing powerful health programmes targeting adolescents and, indeed, all ages. Such programmes should use insights from developmental neuroscience and other disciplines to maximise motivation of young people to enact healthy routines. This can be done by nurturing their decision-making abilities, affording them respect and enhanced status and harnessing the powerful influence of the peer group, all key drivers of adolescent behaviour.

I’ve come to think of this evidence-based harnessing of collective drivers of behaviour as "wesearch". Furthermore, young people and those who care for them need to be supported to embed health-enhancing behaviours within their daily routines. Collectively, we must create health-promoting environments in the families, schools, workplaces and communities in which adolescents are growing up. 

BJ Fogg on Tiny Habits at TedX Fremont

When it comes to what to do and how to do it for improved health and wellbeing, we need to think big about the 1,440 minutes across the day and the world we inhabit. We need to think big but start small to maintain behavioural change. Moving beyond relying on motivation alone is critical, as this is a finite and easily depleted resource.

It’s more helpful to think about establishing habits that become automatic. In his Tiny Habits programme, Stanford University’s BJ Fogg speaks of setting up our daily environments to support our desired behaviours and of thinking really, really small for lasting behaviour change. Key to this is breaking down our goal into steps that can be achieved in less than 30 seconds and anchoring our desired behaviour to an existing habit.

So this New Year, informed by research, think big for the me and with the we in your life, but start small. Start today.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ