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Old habits die hard: First responder steps to building healthy habits

Taking steps to build good habits means you’ll be in tip top shape to serve the public and have a longer, healthier life during your career and beyond

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First responders need good habits as much, or more, than the general public.


Old habits die hard. It’s a cliché for a reason and it presents a challenge for first responders stuck in a cycle of un-wellness that can lead to lifelong disease or, in the worst case, premature death.

First responders develop habits just like everyone else, and these habits go on to affect everything from your body mass to resilience. Unfortunately, some habits aren’t conducive to wellbeing. Bad dietary, fitness and stress-related habits among first responders can exacerbate existing challenges.

Do I Need New Habits?

First, you must determine what habits in your life you want to change.

  • Take stock of your diet: Do you often grab that convenient fast-food meal on the way home from a shift?

  • Consider your fitness regimen: How often do you work out?
  • How you manage stress: Do you find it difficult to wind down after a tough shift?
  • Evaluate your sleep: Be honest about your regular sleep patterns and hygiene.

Habitual behaviors abound in life. The are our default, particularly when we are experiencing stress, so the list of habit worthy of interrogation can be quite long. Note: Not all habits are negative! You also likely have many good habits that positively impact your health and life that you want to hang on to and nurture. Recognize both the good and the bad as you start taking steps to build healthier habits into the lifestyle baked into your career in public safety (e.g., shift work, paramilitary structure, critical incidents).

Once you have a better assessment the habits impacting your physical and mental wellbeing, it’s good to establish baselines. For physical health, this might include getting an annual physical. Seeing your doctor annually is a great preventive measure, helping you to catch problems early on. Physicals also provide valuable information about your blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, vitamin and mineral levels, and more. When you repeat your physical each year, this information can help you and your doctor spot potentially negative changes.

Improving your mental health can start with cultivating awareness. Reflect on how you respond in stressful circumstances and ask those closest to you what they notice about how you deal with stress, your general attitude in life and/or your response in frustrating or tense situations. Make note of the words and behaviors noted in order to determine if you’re really as resilient and mentally healthy as you want to be.

The Science of Habits

According to research from the European Journal of Social Psychology, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to program a new habit into your brain. “Changing habits can be challenging,” as habit formation largely takes place on a neurological level, explains Mike Taigman of FirstWatch. “If you do something the same way, a few different times over, it starts to develop a habit. It starts to wire [neurons] together so that it becomes automatic for you.”

In Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines four distinct stages of habits: cue, craving, response and reward. As you take stock of what habits you have, note each stage. Take your alarm clock as an example. The alarm clock ringing is the cue. The craving that you have may be more sleep – you don’t want to get up. That triggers your response, AKA hitting the snooze button. What’s your reward? A few extra minutes of sleep – and maybe being late for your shift.

If hitting the snooze button is a habit, your mind and body know and recognize the cue, which triggers your craving and leads you to the response and, eventually, to the reward of more sleep. This can work in reverse as well. Say your alarm clock goes off and, instead of hitting the snooze button, your craving is to get up. You respond by getting out of bed, turning your light on and turning your alarm clock off. The reward could be a workout, a shower, breakfast or some quiet time to prepare yourself for the day. Virtually all habits can be broken down in this way, which means we can set ourselves up for success to promote good habits over bad habits in our lives.


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Changing Habits

Negative habits are often cause for grief, regret, even self-loathing – but breaking the habit can be a bigger challenge than we’re prepared for. The key lies in the four stages. To remove a negative habit:

  1. Hide the cue or change it. Approach the problem from the starting point of your habit. In our earlier example of the alarm clock, you may want to change the sound of your alarm clock.

  2. Change your craving. You might ask: Why do I want to sleep in when the alarm clock goes off? You may need to go to bed earlier, reduce screen time before bed, or work to make your room darker and quieter to ensure more sound sleep.
  3. Make your existing habitual response difficult to activate. It’s pretty easy to reach over and press snooze, but what if your alarm clock is all the way across the room?
  4. Replace the reward with a punishment. “Make it feel like it punishes you if you act on it,” says Taigman. Rather than thinking about the few extra minutes of sleep in your warm, comfortable bed, force yourself to think about how you will have to rush to get ready and you may end up late to work. Depending on the habit, training yourself to consider the short- and long-term ramifications of the bad habit on your life, health, colleagues and loved ones can serve as a powerful motivator for change.

By attacking the habit at every stage, you can help push yourself to make necessary changes that will make you healthier and happier. On the reverse side, how do we create a positive habit? It works in much the same way – by addressing each stage of a habit.

  1. Make the cue attractive. “Make it as obvious as you can so that you see it all the time in your daily life,” Taigman explains.
  2. Make the habit attractive. It should be something you genuinely want to do.
  3. Make the cue/habit process easy to act on and respond to.
  4. Make sure completion of the habit brings satisfaction, i.e. reward.

Changing habits is a challenge, but it isn’t impossible. The science of habits can help guide us as we look to get rid of those that hurt us and develop healthy habits to positively influence our lives and wellbeing. First responders need good habits as much, or more, than the general public. Taking steps to build these habits means you’ll be in tip top shape to serve the public and have a longer, healthier life during your career in public safety – and beyond.

Learn more in the recent Lexipol webinar featuring Mike Taigman, “The Emerging Science of Improved Health & Resilience for Fire & EMS.”

Miriam Childs is an experienced digital marketer who has served as Lexipol’s marketing coordinator since 2020. She has a bachelor’s degree in Marketing from the University of Texas at Arlington.