Maintenance: The Holy Grail of Health Behavior Change

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I've done it thousands of times.”Mark Twain

Maintaining health behavior change is difficult for many people. While some of us succeed at weight loss or quitting smoking, in just a few weeks or months we’re back to our bad habits. You may wonder whether there are steps you can take to keep engaging in healthy habits once you’ve adjusted your lifestyle. In fact, there are.

Weight Loss

The National Weight Control Registry is a database of more than 10,000 dieters who have lost weight and successfully maintained their weight loss. On average, the participants have maintained a weight loss of at least 30 pounds for at least a year. Researchers have examined the similarities among this group and found that they exercise more than other people and do not rely on just eating less. They also limit their time watching television and track their eating by writing down food consumption. Additionally, they eat more low-fat foods.

Staying Smoke-Free

Many of the changes you experience after quitting smoking are unpleasant. You may feel nervous, hungry and irritable as part of nicotine withdrawal symptoms, and end up returning to smoking. Oftentimes, relapse occurs after physical cravings have stopped. How can you avoid this?

  • Don’t smoke at all—not even one puff.
  • Avoid smoking triggers like alcohol and stress.
  • Be vigilant when stressful or unusual life events occur like holidays or work lay-offs.
  • Do not keep cigarettes in your house, car or office.
  • If you do relapse, stay calm and return to abstinence.

A Stage of Change

A dominant model of behavior change in

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the field of behavioral psychology is called the Transtheoretical Model or “stages of change.” The model includes maintenance as one of the stages of the change process, and shows that individuals may enter in and out of this stage. When thinking about maintenance, it’s important to consider relapse as just a step in the change process, rather than as failure. If you fall into your old habits for a day or two, or even for a more extended period of time, recognize that this does happen and resolve to get back on track. It’s important to view this as a minor setback and not consider yourself doomed forever. Take a look at StickK , a free online behavior change website as a resource.


Maintaining behavior change is an enormous challenge. Researchers and health promotion program designers are hard at work trying to develop effective solutions for sustaining positive behaviors once individuals have adopted them. One focus in recent years has been on using mobile technology for more frequent and targeted communication. An app that helps keep you smoke-free, at a great weight and fit as a fiddle – now that’s getting closer to the Holy Grail of health behavior change!

Photo credit: iStockphoto

About the author: Courtney Hughes, PhD, is an expert in workplace wellness and disease management. She consults with companies on health promotion strategies, communications, and incentives to improve health and financial outcomes. Courtney has held research positions at major universities and has published several peer-reviewed articles. For more information, visit or follow her on Twitter as @MCourtneyHughes.


About the Author

Courtney Hughes

1 Comment

karen joy

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