New Year’s resolutions are a great opportunity to kickstart a New Year, however they can be particularly difficult to adhere to, but why do so many of us fail? Short answer, it all lies in your brain, and Kate Nobel, Fitness Coach at the Australian Institute of Fitness, is here to discuss how habits are formed, and share her top five tips for setting New Year goals.
The human brain is wired to pay attention to formally tried and tested, ‘pleasing’ stimulus. Studies have found that when people see something associated with a past reward, their brain flushes itself with dopamine. This is the reason why old habits are hard to break, and new habits are hard to establish.
Let me explain a little further, neural pathways are like freeways of nerve cells that transmit messages. When you travel over the freeway many times, and the pathway becomes more and more solid. However, practicing a new habit under the right conditions can change hundreds of millions of the connections between the nerve cells in our neural pathways. Now, neural pathways can be strengthened into new habits through the repetition and practice of thinking, feeling and acting. However, changing a way of thinking and doing does require willpower and willpower, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out. It is an extremely limited mental resource. Bad habits are hard to break, and they’re impossible to break if we try to break a number of them all at the same time. The only way to fix ‘willpower weaknesses’ is to know about them, and only then can the precise mental muscles get strengthened.
The brain area principally responsible for willpower is called the prefrontal cortex, and is located just behind the forehead. One of the reasons that a lot of us, at times struggle with our own willpower is that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for a number of things, in addition to your New Year’s resolutions. For example, a substantial portion of the cortex is in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory, decision making, regulating behaviour and solving abstract problems. Asking it to lose weight, give up smoking or start jogging 5 km each day is often asking it to do one thing too many.
Our prefrontal cortex loses out in the battle for our energy when high stress is involved. Whether it is yoga, a swim, a walk or a nap, find out what works for you to reduce your stress levels.
In those times of struggle or temptation, remind yourself that YOU CAN do this! Doing so can help you to have more self-control, and taking back control of the situation will keep your mind focused on the goal at hand.
Getting enough sleep makes a big difference to how efficiently the prefrontal cortex works. Sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stress that impairs how the body and brain uses energy. With Sleep deprivation, the prefrontal cortex is specifically hard hit and loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings and the stress response, and we don’t want that. So hit the hay early and make time for your sleep.
It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but meditation has many benefits. Meditation has been known to influence the reserve of willpower we have available in a positive way. In addition it can also improve attention, focus, stress management and self-awareness. Win – Win!
Whether your New Year resolutions are health related or not, a healthy diet and regular physical exercise will make energy more available to the brain and boost your willpower.
There are no secrets and no short cuts. It’s simple, just train the body and the mind. If you look after your brain, your brain will look after you.