05/28/2013 08:51 am ET

Mindless Behavior Applies To Healthy Habits, Too: Study


A new study adds weight to the case for building healthy routines.

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers from the University of Southern California found that when stress triggers us to act mindlessly, we don't just mindlessly engage in unhealthy behaviors like eating junk food or zoning out in front of the TV -- we also turn to healthy behaviors that have already been ingrained into our routines.

"When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits," study researcher Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the university, said in a statement. "Habits persist even when we're tired and don't have the energy to exert self-control."

For the study, researchers followed students for a school semester as they experienced stressful and less-stressful times (exam periods, etc.), to observe their typical habits. They found that when the students were going through stressful times, they became even more susceptible to their mindless habits -- for worse and for better.

For example, if students typically ate donuts for breakfast, they ate even more donuts when they were stressed out by exams. But the same went for students with more healthy breakfast picks -- those who typically ate oatmeal for breakfast stuck with that choice during the stressful times. A similar phenomenon occurred for participants who regularly exercised, and who regularly read the newspaper editorial pages.

"So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be, how can you form healthy, productive habits? What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine," Wood said in the statement.



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