It’s all in the mind - Achieving a healthy lifestyle

Most of us know what we need to do to pursue a healthy lifestyle – like eating healthy food, getting enough exercise, not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol and eating only as much as we need.

However it isn’t enough to know this – we also need to do it. How can we increase the chances of doing what we know is good for our health?

Here are our top five tips, based on findings from health psychology, successful public health initiatives and studies of what influences our behaviour:

1. Have a good reason for staying healthy - and keep this in the front of your mind

For example do you want to be fit enough to spend fun time with your grandchildren? Do you want to live your life to the full, actively pursuing your favourite interests? Do you want to enjoy your retirement in good health, travelling perhaps, instead of spending years in and out of hospital or having to go into care? Do you want to enjoy your relationships rather than being a burden to those you love?

Decide what matters most to you and keep reminding yourself of this. For example, do you have pictures of what motivates you? Find ways to display them, from the screen saver on your computer to pictures on your desk.  Or list your three strongest reasons for changing and keep this by your bedside.

Some researchers believe we need more immediate goals and objectives – and also to think about the process of exercising, eating more healthily etc. and how we can take control of this process. For example:

  • Learning new abilities and routines - e.g. learning how to cook for family and friends.
  • Contributing to our community - e.g. by helping others to be active and/or eat more healthily.
  • Taking on a new personal identity - e.g. becoming "a runner", who finishes a popular charity race.

Where we enjoy the process or see it making a difference for us as a person (over and above outcomes like losing weight) this can be particularly powerful.

2. Remember there are people who can help you

If you’re looking to give up unhealthy, compulsive behaviour (like smoking) there are a number of organisations which can help.

Similarly, if you’re looking to lose weight a 2011 trial found that the 61% of participants in a 12 month Weight Watchers programme did, on average, lose weight. However, some studies have suggested that weight tends to be regained over the following years. So it probably helps to see this as a lifestyle choice that becomes a regular habit, rather than a ‘quick fix.’  

Your local Adult Education centres will also usually have exercise, dance and fitness classes where you can benefit from tuition and peer support – as well as classes to exercise your brain (which may help prevent or delay dementia). Your local leisure centre is another useful resource.

Friends, colleagues and family members are another potential source of support. You may find walking or running with a friend, colleague or member of your family, sometimes known as “buddying”, more enjoyable and easier to keep up than doing it on your own.

Technology can also help. Fitness wrist bands may not always be 100% accurate but they can become quite compulsive and seem to help some people. Alternatively, pedometers (step trackers) can also help.

3. Think about what works for you

Age Watch’s own research, to be published later this year, suggests we often experience trigger points in our lives, which prompt us to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Examples include a health wake up call (if we or someone close to us has a health scare), having children, getting older, not fitting into our clothes or getting out of breath when we walk up the stairs. Appearance can also be a strong motivator. One person we interviewed planned her weight loss around an annual schedule of social and business events, using her appearance at each upcoming event as a short term trigger to control her weight. So think about what trigger points in your life might work for you.

Also, think about times when you’ve been most successful at leading a healthy lifestyle. What was it about those times that made this possible? Then, if it is still feasible, look to repeat what worked for you previously.

Also think about situations when you’ve been easily distracted. Which situations  represent the greatest risk for you? For example do you tend to eat more if you are bored - or if you are upset? Can you find ways to avoid or at least reduce these kinds of situation?

4. Understand why we’re sometimes tempted

For thousands of years food was often scarce or difficult to obtain, so it made sense to eat whenever the opportunity arose. We’re arguably programmed to ‘consume’ in the short term, rather than think of the long term consequences.

However, we now live in a world where food (and financial credit) is now available all year round and from a range of sources. This is part of what has been described as an ‘obesogenic environment.’  Perhaps the way our bodies were programmed thousands of years ago is now putting us at risk.

So we may be tempted to consume even if we’re not really hungry or thirsty. However, what makes us human is also our ability to learn, to reason, to look ahead and to predict the consequences of our actions. We just need to remember to keep using this ability.

5. Make a Plan

Starting with small steps is probably more realistic. For example, if you’re planning to walk more, plan to start with distances you can manage.

‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.’  The Chinese philosopher, Laozi

Work out when and where you need to do things and plan to remind yourself at that time and place. For example it may help to prepare sample shopping lists featuring healthy food, to have some healthy menus to hand in the kitchen and to put away your largest plates, leaving smaller plates more accessible, to automatically reduce the size of meals.

As with any Plan we need to make sure we’re following it. Keeping a diary of what you’ve actually done (e.g. as regards exercise, eating, drinking or smoking) is a good way


  • Have a good reason for staying healthy – and keep this in the front of your mind
  • Use healthier activities to help you take greater control of your life
  • Remember there are people and organisations (and technology) that can help
  • Do what works best for you personally
  • Think with your brain – not your stomach
  • Make a plan, and monitor it,but don’t be afraid to start with small steps

Reviewed 2020