The surprising habit for optimized health

By Alistair Gardiner
Published April 1, 2021

Key Takeaways

For many people, life during a pandemic has felt like a life full of reruns, with the same episodes replaying over and over again. But all that repetition may have a silver lining. Even though our routines can feel like a bore, research indicates that setting and sticking to a routine plays an important role in our health.

Here are the benefits of sticking to a regular routine, according to health experts and new research.

Effects of routines on mental health and burnout

According to primary care physician Indumathi Bendi, MD, every time you make a decision, you experience a small amount of stress. While these decisions on their own may not have a major impact on your mental health, stress can add up if you find yourself constantly making decisions about what to do next. By turning everyday tasks into regular, predictable routines that you don’t have to think about, you can reduce stress.

Similarly, psychologist Brad Brenner, PhD, wrote that routines can help alleviate anxiety, even aiding in managing symptoms of certain mental disorders like bipolar disorder and substance abuse disorder. Brenner notes that the gradual accumulation of stress can lead to burnout, which may involve exhaustion, negative impacts to interpersonal relationships, and a decrease in professional productivity. 

To combat this, Brenner recommends establishing a morning routine that you stick to every day. 

Scheduling out your day ahead of time and skipping the AM snooze button can help reduce stress. Ensuring that you finish work at the same time each day helps, too.

Likewise, Bendi advises scheduling daily tasks so that they occur at the same time each day. To maintain continuity and reduce the decision-making burden, remove as many variables as you can. Try picking out the next day’s outfit before you go to bed, or planning out the week’s meals ahead of time.

The benefits of a sleep routine

Establishing a routine during the day can help you maintain a regular sleep pattern at night, which research has shown is critical for health. According to a study published in Diabetes Care, increased variability in sleep duration is associated with higher risks of a range of metabolic abnormalities. 

Researchers followed about 2,000 individuals for 6 years. The participants kept a sleep diary and wore wrist monitors to track their sleep. The participants’ metabolic factors were also examined during the study period.

Results showed that variations in sleep patterns, like irregular bedtimes and wake-up times, were linked to increased risks of obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and other health issues. Specifically, for each hour of sleep variability, the risk of metabolic syndrome increased by roughly 27%. 

Routines and a healthier overall lifestyle

As pointed out in an article in The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, a healthy lifestyle depends on regular consumption of nutritious foods, habitual exercise, and consistent sleep patterns. This is even more important for those who have risk factors for a disease or who are trying to manage the symptoms of a chronic condition. 

Developing a routine can help individuals stick to healthy habits and adhere to long-term treatment plans. As noted in the article, research indicates that healthy people tend to cultivate habitual healthy behaviors. For example, those who successfully maintain weight loss often eat the same healthy foods, take part in consistent exercise, and don’t skip meals. 

Much like the advice above, the authors write that developing a daily structure so that fewer decisions need to be made is a great first step. They also advise making advance preparations, like planning meals, packing a lunch instead of buying one, and scheduling exercise classes or workouts with a friend—all of which remove emotionally taxing decisions out of your day, removing the temptation to make unhealthy choices.

Bottom line

The key is to build long-term habits rather than focusing on short-term perfection. Take some time to plan out your week. If you slip up, don’t give up on your routine. In the long run, your physical and mental health stand to benefit. For more tips on healthy habits for doctors, click here

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