Helping Patients Form Healthy Habits

Helping Patients Form Healthy Habits

As a nurse, you’re in an excellent position to offer advice to patients about establishing healthier lifestyle habits. The question is: What’s the best way to provide guidance on habit-formation? Here are some best practices on health education.

1. Double-check to make sure that the coast is clear.

Some patients are resistant to any type of lifestyle advice – even from trusted health care professionals. Strive to identify those patients who may be annoyed when told to alter behaviors, and tread softly. You don’t want to threaten a patient’s trust; maintaining a good nurse-patient relationship is paramount.

 2. When you do take the opportunity to give advice, do it right.

Make sure guidance is delivered briefly, is action-able, and also sustainable. If patients don’t believe they can actually implement your recommendation, or keep it going long enough to have an impact, you’ll have wasted your breath.

3. The easiest habit target is a self-selected one.

Help patients to choose the behavior they really want to address. That way they’ll be more motivated and will make better progress. Behaviors that resonate with personal values and intrinsic desires also allow patients a better shot at achieving their goals.

4. It’s easier to establish a new habit than to extinguish an old one.

So recommend that patients brainstorm about what how to approach a goal so it focuses on the new. For instance, choosing to snack on fruit at work will take less effort than aiming to ditch a vending machine junk food fix.

5. Baby steps are the way to big behavior change.

Even one slight change can have a powerful effect on health, and that change is more likely to be sustainable. So, instead of training for a marathon, a couch-potato patient would be better advised to start with a daily walk around the block.

Who knows, that outing may ramp up to a brisk walk around the high school track, then jogging through the park, and finally joining a group to train for a marathon.

6. Remind your patients not to get frustrated.

It takes time for a healthy habit to become automatic. (Some behaviors can take two months or so to finally click.) That’s another reason to select one simple action – it’ll become a habit more quickly than a complex one, or a multitude of changes all at once.

Then one success will lead to another, and another. It’s a virtuous circle!


Jebra Turner is a freelance health writer in Portland, Oregon. You can visit her online at