How to help children and teens live healthier lives: 6 Proven Steps

Chad Alexander BSc, MEd, BEd is the founder of Fitness Minimalists. He asks with Healthy Lombard followers, ” What can parents and teachers do to help children and teenagers live healthier lives?

The Centre for Disease Control (2018) notes that 19-20% of children ages 2-19 years old are obese (Source: Childhood Obesity Facts).  Additionally, 72% of Americans 20 years and older are also considered either overweight or obese (NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, 2022).  According to the World Health Organization (2018), obesity rates have almost tripled since 1975. Fortunately, obesity can often be prevented (Source: Obesity and Overweight).

 

How might parents and teachers support young people in living healthier, more active lives?

Over the years, I have been refining my approach to helping diverse groups of students create healthy habits that last. When teaching in a public school, in one semester, I worked with over 100 high school students where approximately 75% of the students reported consistently maintaining their healthy habits over a two-month period.

Let’s jump in and look at proven ways to help youth develop healthy, sustainable habits.

#1. What is the science of successfully starting habits?

#2. How to create a bulletproof habit plan

#3. Make it hard not to stick with your new habit!

#4. Invite your students or family to join you

#5. Emphasize starting as opposed to stopping

#6. Review, Revamp and Renew

#1. What is the science of successfully starting habits?

When helping young people start healthy habits, let’s first review how habits work.

To start, a question: what are three positive things you do every single day without fail?

Brushing your teeth, putting on deodorant, and getting out of bed before a certain time are all healthy habits that you might already do.

But was it always this way? If you stop to think, you may realize that you have already started and successfully sustained many habits throughout your life.

Habits are really just actions that we repeat. But how do we remember to do these things each day so that they become habits?

Charles Duhigg, the best-selling author of The Power of Habit, explains that each habit has one or more cues that trigger us to repeat these actions (Source: How Habits Work).

For example, how do you remember to brush your teeth each day?

Do you brush at a certain time and place? Is there something that you always do immediately before brushing your teeth…perhaps showering, having breakfast, or drinking coffee? Or maybe it’s a household activity where you get together to brush your teeth?

Hiding in this example are the types of cues or triggers that we can use to start and maintain new healthy, habits.

Six habit-starting cues:

  • Time of day (be consistent and choose the same time)
  • Location or place
  • Emotional state
  • People
  • Immediately preceding behaviors that lead to the habit (ex. Taking that last sip of coffee before brushing your teeth) (Source: How Habits Work).

While it may take some conscious planning at first, using these cues can help us start and stick with healthy habits that will compound and enhance our lives for years.

#2. How to create a bulletproof habit plan

Now that you’ve learned the science behind starting habits, it is time to make a plan for starting your new healthy habit.

Action step: Take five minutes right now, and use the above cues, to create a plan for yourself to start a habit that you actually want to commit to.

“What is a healthy habit that you actually want to start and would be willing to commit to for the next year or even the rest of your life?”When starting new habits with 100 students where the majority stuck with it, I found this to be the most important question to ask and to re-emphasize.

Now, I’m asking you!

What is one habit that you really, really want to start and would be willing to commit to because you know it would make life so much better for you?

Did you decide what your next healthy habit will be!?

Great! Now let’s add as many cues as we can to make this habit ‘stickier:’

How to create your habit plan – Use this template

  • Time: When will you perform this habit? Include the specific days and times (choose the same time for your habit, if possible)
  • Place: Where will you carry this habit out? Include the precise location
  • Emotion: What emotion might you use as a cue for action?
  • Person: Who will you carry this habit out with or who will you check in with to share your progress?
  • Immediately preceding behaviour: Is there a preceding behavior that you already do that could lead well into this habit? (ex. Going to locker immediately after school, putting books away, then heading to the gym)
  • Reward: How will you reward yourself for carrying out this habit? Will you shower yourself with positive words or have a healthy, enjoyable snack afterwards? Or might you do something nice for yourself like watch a favorite show or have a soothing bath afterwards? (Source: How Habits Work).

#3. Make it hard not to stick with your new habit!

After reviewing the data of 94 separate tests, researchers reported that people who create a habit plan or “implementation intention that spells out the when, where, and how of goal striving in advance” are far more likely to carry out their intended actions (Source: Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A Meta‐Analysis of Effects and Processes).

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, encourages his readers to create implementation intentions by completing the following sentence:

“I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].” (Source: Achieve Your Goals: Research Reveals a Simple Trick That Doubles Your Chances for Success)

When it comes to planning your habit, James Clear shares four more guiding principles that help us stick to our habits (Source: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick).

Make your habit obvious

  • To make it extra hard not to forget your habit, you might want to set up a reminder for yourself or place a note in the place you will be so that it will be difficult to forget. Why not schedule the time for this habit now on paper or you might use a calendar app and set up automatic reminder?
  • Think of other ways to make your healthy habit even more obvious.
  • To illustrate, if your new habit it to eat vegetables three times a day, you might place the vegetables front and center so that when you open your fridge or cupboard the healthy foods will be the obvious choice (Source: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick).

Make it easier to stick to your habit

  • Is there anything else that might make this as easy as possible for your future self to carry your habit out? For instance, if you are planning to exercise after work, you might place your workout clothes and shoes in your work bag the day before.
  • On the flip side, are than any behaviors that might make it harder for you to carry out your habit?
  • As an example, have you ever noticed it seems to require heroic efforts to get yourself to carry out a task after lying down on the couch and starting to watch that addictive series?
  • Be kind to yourself by making this habit as easy as possible to carry out (Source: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick).

Make your habit satisfying

  • A randomized controlled study showed that people who exercised while listening to addictive audiobooks led the participants to hit the gym 51% more than those in the control group (Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling).
  • Is there something you already love doing that you could pair with your new habit?
  • Watching a series while working out, listening to audiobooks while going for a walk, or taking the time to find the healthy recipes you find most satiating are a few examples of ways to make healthy habits even more satisfying (Source: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick).

Make your habit attractive

  • You will cover this principle more in the next sections, but for now, one way to make it attractive to stick to your habits is to get an accountability partner. (Source: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick).

 

Or better yet…

#4. Invite your students or family to join you

Now that you have created your own habit plan, you will likely feel more confident with guiding your students or family members in creating a habit plan

To do this, you can support your co-captains in creating their own habit plans by using the same steps you went through above.

For best results in inviting others to join in, I believe the habit-starting adventure needs to be more than some assignment or activity that an authority figure is ‘pushing’ or telling another person to do.

From my experience, it has been more effective to approach this collective experiment as co-learners who are testing different ways to crack the code of: “How can I actually get myself to start and sustain this awesome habit that is going to make my life way better?”

I consistently repeated the following types of phrases when working with students to choose their own habits:

“This healthy habit isn’t something I’m telling you to do or that you ‘should’ do. This new habit is meant to be something that you genuinely want to start or have been meaning to start and you would just like some extra support to make it happen. Does that make sense?”

Or…

“I just want to make sure that you’re not planning to start this habit just because this is an assignment or because I’m telling you to. What is a habit that you really want to start because you know it would make you healthier or happier?”

#5. Emphasize starting as opposed to stopping

When working with young people, I found this process worked best when focussing on starting new healthy habits as opposed to stopping deeply ingrained habits.

When someone chose a habit to stop, such as over-eating, smoking, or biting nails, I would encourage the students to experiment with starting habits that were aimed to replace those less healthy habits.

For example, if a student wanted to stop smoking, I would encourage the student to instead add a habit that would be aimed at replacing their habit of smoking.

One student’s implementation became, “every time I have a smoke, I will immediately destroy three cigarettes. Then, I will enjoy six deep breaths while looking at the sky.”

This healthier habit helped the student replace the unwanted habit of smoking.

If someone wanted to stop eating a bag of chips in one sitting, they might start a new, healthy habit using an implementation intention such as the following:

“On Friday night, at 5:30 pm -before I am tempted to eat a large bag of chips, I will go to the kitchen and prepare a vegetable omelette for myself to eat.”

#6. Review, Revamp and Renew

There will be days when we slip up and miss. That’s when viewing this as an experiment can be helpful.

By approaching the new habit as an experiment, you gain the mindset of testing out what works and learning from what doesn’t.

Rather than feeling bad for missing, we take time to review what happened and we can systematically plan ways to make this habit stick.

How do you do this?

Here are the steps that I took with my students.

  • Create a playlist of positive, feel-good songs. (I told my students to choose songs that could be considered PG-13 or lower).
  • To start the day, we would play one of the songs from their playlist.
  • While listening to the song, we would take the time to journal and check in with the people around us. We would first journal about, then ask each other the following types of questions:
    • Did you do your habit yesterday?
    • How did it go?
    • How did you track your progress?
  • If someone missed their habit, we would work together to plan ways that the cues could be better established along with other ways to create the time and space that would make it more likely for the habit to flourish.
  • If the cues didn’t work, it can help to look at ways to make the habit more obvious, easier, satisfying, or attractive (Source: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick).
  • If someone started too strong or tried to commit to more than one habit, I often encouraged that person to scale the habit back to be a smaller, more easily manageable chunk of time.

The Wrap

By taking these steps, don’t be surprised if you and your team of habit-starters are able to create healthy habits that last for many months.

More importantly, you will be helping young people develop the confidence and skills to continue creating healthy routines that lead to lasting health and fulfillment.

If you are trying to decide on your next healthy habit, you might want to check out this post for some ideas and inspiration.

Author Bio:

Chad Alexander BSc, MEd, BEd is the founder of Fitness Minimalists. He is a certified personal trainer and high school teacher with specializations in fitness nutrition and strategic intervention. Chad’s favorite class to teach is Personal Fitness where the students work to create life-long, healthy habits.

 

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