What is the Impact of Routine on Health?

We often hear people say “when I get back into my routine, I can….” This statement is usually made when we are contemplating taking on a new challenge such as a new fitness class, diet plan, or a new project. However, many children returned to school this week, and the thought of getting back into a routine comes with mixed blessings to some parents. Therefore, realizing the full impact of routine on health is of the utmost importance.

What is the Impact of Routine on Health?

Why do some of us need a routine?

We first encounter routine as babies when our parents, advised by health practitioners, establish us with a strict routine of sleep and feed patterns, thus creating predictability which in turn bring reassurance and reduces stress.

As children, the education system introduces structure to our day. With lessons and breaks determined by the clock and ringing of a bell. In turn, schooling demands determine the format for the rest of our day – at what time we wake in order to catch the school bus, what time we return home, and in order to get our 10 hours sleep – we are then sent off to bed at the same time each night.

For many of us as adults, our workplace then brings this structure to our day. Often work hours are set in stone. This will establish the routine of set meeting times, breaks, lunch times and so on.

Are you a nine to five kind of person?

There are many whom thrive on routine; they may prefer to know what they will eat on what day of the week. Some may even plan what clothes they will wear on which days of the week. Others may like to know where they will be at every hour of any given day and what they will be doing. They love the fact that their nine to five job means they wake at the same time each day, eat the same breakfast, catch the same bus, sit in the same seat, walk the same route, sit in the same chair, eat the same sandwich and so on.

For others, even the word ‘routine’ can bring shivers down their spine, or cold sweats to some. These people may prefer to work in jobs that offer flex-time, or work from home. These roles allow flexibility as to where and when you work and can accommodate a need to remain fluid.

When exactly does something become ‘routine’, structure or ‘habit’?

Do you wake up at the same time at weekends, or during holidays as you do during your working week? That is routine. Your body becomes accustomed to doing the same thing at the same time. It often struggles to differentiate between week days and weekends, much like a baby’s body would.

Do you drive the same route each day, only to find on some days that you can’t actually remember going down a certain street? Again, that is probably routine. As you become used to doing something, your mind doesn’t need to concentrate so hard on the task in hand.  This will often result in our mind wandering onto different thoughts.

It’s like riding a bike!

The first time we complete an activity we need to give it our full attention. This allows us to plan and concentrate on the task. By repeating the process, we become more efficient at the activity and it requires much less thought. Often leading to an eventual lack of awareness in some cases – pretty much like when we learn to ride a bicycle.

By doing something over and over it becomes habit. Once something becomes habit we no longer need to remember to do them. This alleviates the mind of the stress that is involved order to remember. Having reoccurring structure to events or rituals can help our minds to focus on other tasks that we need to do.

How long does it take to become a routine?

Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London published a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology.  The study suggests that on average it takes 66 days to form a routine. This depends upon the behavior, the person, and the circumstances for an action or activity to embed itself as routine.

Facing the consequences

Most of us will find that some routines are expected of us quickly due to the consequences that non-compliance will bring. Things like the weekly refuse collection: if we don’t have the bins at the bottom of the drive on a set day and time they will not get emptied. We often feel out of sorts when it has been a bank holiday and the collection is a day late. So, in such cases, after failing to put the bin out once or twice, the consequences of having smelly, over-spilling bins will speed up the need for this memory/cue to embed itself.

Linking out thoughts

Other routines may come about as we link them to other thoughts. Using cues to remind us of associated tasks. For instance we may clean our teeth prior to taking a shower, so by association we use the shower to remind us to clean our teeth daily. The consequences of failure isn’t so drastic, so this may take a while longer to embed the cue.

Other routines may come about as we learn ways that work best for us. For example you may have worked out that doing things at certain times makes things easier. For example – we may miss the rush hour traffic by setting off on the school run at 8:20 in the morning. This in turn means the chaos of the traffic is avoided and time is saved. Alternatively you may have discovered that if you go to the gym at seven in the evening you can avoid the six o’clock queues for the machines and therefore get a better workout.

So, what is the impact that having a routine has on our health?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that having routines will help with;
• Reducing stress
• Help us to sleep better
• Improves our physical activity
• Aids weight loss
• Reduces anxiety
• Helps us to achieve success

Freeing our minds

So, having a schedule/routine/habit may help us to take control of our day – by allowing us to prioritize our goals; we can then consider our needs and our wants. From this, we can then plan the ‘must do’s’, and that allow us to consider the ‘like to do’s’. Thus keeping our brains uncluttered, rendering us more able to focus on the new challenges which may come our way.

Therefore, having a routine may be helpful for our minds as it frees it of these routine thoughts. However, being rigid with routine can also bring additional stress caused by the anxieties that change may bring.

Evidence suggests there is a direct impact on mental health and physical health. Planning and preparation frees our mind of many last minute decisions. It enables us to relax and be rested, and more focused on matters that require our concentration. This should make us more able to take control of our choices in order to plan for success and have a sense of accomplishment.

But as diverse as we all are, the benefits and disadvantages are for us to determine ourselves.

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