The key to health and wellness programs is habit change. A common question is “How long does it take to form a new habit?”


A Myth That Health and Wellness Programs Need to Expose


For decades we’ve all believed that it takes 21 days to form a habit. Here’s the history of how that myth became dogma. The magic “21” number came from anecdotal observations of a 1950s plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz.


He noticed that when he performed an operation like a nose job, it would take his patients about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maltz noted that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation. He then added observations from his own behavior and derived the mythical time period.

The reason that this flimsy research became engrained in stone was that Maltz wrote about it in a book about behavior change, named Psycho-Cybernetics which became a bestseller.


Health and Wellness Programs Must Use a More Realistic Time Frame


Today, based on the latest research, reputable health and wellness programs need to consider a much longer time frame. Here’s the new information in use by health and wellness programs about how long it takes to change health habits.


New Research on How Long it Takes to Change Habits


Phillippa Lally of the Cancer Research UK Health Behavior Research Centre based at UCL Epidemiology and Public Health conducted a rigorous investigation to determine how long it really takes to change ingrained health behaviors.

The conclusion is that “It can take longer than many people expect to create healthy eating habits.” While there is tremendous variability depending on the person and the behavior, about 66 day is the average length of time. That’s over 2 months versus 3 weeks.


How the Health Behavior Change Research was Conducted


• The study looked at how long it takes people to reach a point where a new behavior feels automatic.

• A habit was defined as a behavior that is performed automatically because it has been performed frequently in the past.

• The repetition creates a mental association between the situation (cue) and action (behavior) which means that when the cue is encountered the behavior is performed automatically.

• To measure the strength of a habit, the researchers used a self-report measure of automaticity.


Results of Behavior Change Research


The study followed 96 people over a 12-week period.

• Each person chose one new habit to work on for 12 weeks.

• They reported daily on whether they performed the new behavior and how automatic it felt.

Some new health habits that were chosen by the participants:

o Drinking a bottle of water with lunch
o Running for 15 minutes before dinner

• On average it took the participants 66 days to change habits.

• But, the habit formation results varied between 18 and 254 days.

• For most people, adopting healthier habits is likely to take between two months and eight months.


Study Reveals the Key Factors in Breaking or Gaining Habits


• To create a habit you need to repeat the behavior in the same situation. It’s important that something about the setting where you perform the behavior is consistent so that it can cue the behavior.

• Breaking habits is very difficult. The easiest way is to control your environment so that you don’t encounter the cue which triggers your habit. It is difficult to break habits. If you’re ambivalent you’ll be less likely to succeed.

• New habits don’t erase the old habits, but the newer habits eventually become stronger influences on behavior.


The Implications for Health and Wellness Programs


What are the implications of these finding for health and wellness programs that try to help people form new healthy habits and break unhealthy ones? The research demonstrates that, on average, it takes much longer than many people think to change health habits. Typically, it will take over two months for this transformation to occur.


If someone wants to form a habit they should specify clearly what they will do and in what situation and try to do this consistently. Over time it will start to happen more easily and require less effort.


Click here to read the full research about how health and wellness programs can help clients with behavior change.