A morning walk with the dog. Sunday dinner with the family. Sound like run-of-the-mill routines, right? While some, like that morning walk, are obvious health boosters, research suggests that many routines can have surprising health benefits as wide-ranging as improving your marriage and insulating teens from addictions.
Rituals—the flashy, more exciting cousins of routine—are the ceremonies we use to mark life’s turning points, such as holiday gatherings and other community- or family-based celebrations. And they are, of course, an important way to express and foster connections with others. But routines haven’t had the same good press. Where rituals are about pomp and ceremony—we plan for them and anticipate them—routines, well, they’re just so…routine. We do them without thinking.
So why should you work more of them into your life? “Routines are like mental butlers,” says Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. “Once you have a routine in place, then the mental processes that make the behaviour happen take place automatically.” You save time and energy and reduce stress by skipping the mental to-ing and fro-ing of making a decision, and slide directly into getting the task done. Instead of creating each day from scratch, routines create a framework of small decisions you no longer have to make—so you have more time to devote to things that matter.
Set a place for dinner
A simple thing many of us may take for granted—the family dinner—has been shown to have big benefits for everyone at the table. Author Barbara Fiese, a clinical and developmental psychologist, and professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, studied the impact of the family meal on kids with asthma. She found that those whose families had predictable mealtime routines had better lung function than children whose family meals were more chaotic. Why? Fiese says that simply taking the worry out of “when are we eating?” meant children were less stressed. Less anxiety meant fewer asthma attacks, and that in turn meant better lung function.
And as every parent knows, family dinners aren’t just about eating: They’re about connecting and communicating. “Parents need to know that what their kids really want at the dinner table is them,” says Elizabeth Planet, vice-president and director of special projects for The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York.
In one study, CASA found that compared to teens who eat frequently with their families (five or more dinners per week), teenagers who have two or fewer dinners a week with their families are three and a half times likelier to have abused prescription drugs; three times likelier to have used marijuana; three and a half times likelier to have used other illegal drugs; two and a half times likelier to have used tobacco; and one and a half times likelier to have drunk alcohol.
Other research has found that teens who regularly eat with their families are less likely to have sex at a young age, get into fights or be suspended from school, and are at lower risk for suicidal thoughts. “There are no silver bullets,” says Planet. “But parental engagement is key to reducing teen substance abuse risk, and one of the simplest and most effective ways for parents to be engaged in their teens’ lives is to have frequent family dinners with them.” (At a loss for what to cook? Check out our healthy dinner ideas.)
Create a strong foundation
“The modern world is chaotic, and many things are beyond our control,” says Sian Rawkins, MD, head of ambulatory psychiatry at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. Routines at home work to create a stable foundation that makes it easier to cope with an unpredictable world. Why? If you’re not worrying about home, you have more resources—brainpower, emotional and physical energy—to deal with whatever else life may throw at you. “In families, routines have been shown to increase health and psychological well-being, as well as improve social adjustment and academic achievement for children,” says Rawkins.
But it isn’t just children who benefit from routines. In a comprehensive survey, Fiese found that both rituals and routines boosted satisfaction with parenting and increased marital satisfaction for the respondents. Routines helped parents feel competent and in control, and rituals helped cement relationships so the adults felt more connected to their spouses and extended families.
Make healthy habits stick
When routines are specifically tied to an activity that is a health booster, the benefits are even more pronounced. Cindy Moriarty of Ottawa, Cananda manages a feat some might consider superhuman: Most weekday mornings, she’s up at 5:30 a.m. to go to the gym before heading to her government office. “It would be really easy to talk myself into rolling over and going back to sleep,” says Moriarty with a laugh. But she doesn’t—and that’s at least in part because she has set up a morning workout routine that makes it easier to head to the gym than hide under the covers.
The night before, she fills the coffee maker and sets it to start automatically. She packs her work clothes and toiletries in a bag that she leaves by the front door, and puts her gym clothes out in her bedroom. “When I wake up, all I have to do is put on my gym clothes and pour my coffee.” Then she and her partner drive to the gym near her office, where they work out for 30 to 45 minutes. After showering and dressing, they stop at their favorite café for a coffee to go, and Moriarty is at her desk by 7:30 a.m.
Focus on long-term gain
Adhering to routines in one aspect of your life—like Moriarty’s morning workouts, or going to a place of worship with your family every weekend—can make it easier to make positive choices in other areas, McCullough says. He published a study that looked at whether religious people have better self-control than non-religious people. His question: Are religious people better at forgoing short-term satisfaction for longer-term gain, in situations as varied as choosing to paint the kitchen rather than relaxing after work, or completing a school assignment rather than hanging out with friends? The short answer is yes, religious people do seem to have better self-control.
McCullough says this might be linked to the practice of sticking to the routines that are involved in religious observance. “Whenever you engage in routines that involve the repeated exercise of mental muscles for controlling impulses, appetites or behavior, this can lead to the building of self-regulatory capacities in your attention, appetites and behavior in general.”
But you don’t have to be religious to see that principle at work: Sticking to something in one area of your life can help you build up your routine-keeping skills in other areas. And for Moriarty, her early-morning gym workout has taught her that “good decisions reinforce good decisions.” Ultimately, the success you have in adopting one routine can give you the tools and confidence to create other healthy habits.
Make routines work for you
1. Start small Dr. Rawkins of Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, suggests adding small routines and building on your successes.
2. Be specific Make the goal tangible, such as “I want us to eat dinner together three times a week” rather than “I want us to have more family time.”
3. Get support Ask for help, whether it’s getting a teacher’s help in creating new homework routines for your child, or getting a friend to join you for walks.
5. Plan for success Think through what you’ll do if confronted with challenges. Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer at New York University calls these “implementation intentions” (if x happens, I will do y.) He studied this kind of mental preparation and found that for those trying to stick to a diet or exercise routine, this thinking boosted the likelihood of success.
6. Be flexible It may seem counterintuitive, but make sure your routines are flexible. Rigid routines are more likely to fail; flexible ones are more likely to last. “Healthy routines are flexible,” Rawkins says. “They can be adapted to fit your needs.”
January/February 2010 issue of Best Health magazine