Something I’ve observed both in my practice and in my private life is that certain behaviors (and cravings) tend to run together. For example, many of my patients who smoke find that alcohol is a smoking trigger. For them, these two cravings/behaviors have become linked in such a way that it is nearly impossible for them to resist having a cigarette while they are drinking. The alcohol potentiates the urge for tobacco, and in order for such people to quit one habit, they must quit both at the same time which is very difficult to do. I have also noticed that people who exercise regularly tend to have much healthier than average diets, high in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated and trans-fats. For many of my endurance athlete patients, the mere thought of a fast-food burger with fries is enough to make them feel sick.
While not all drinkers smoke and not all athletes have healthy diets, what seems to be clear is that, for most people, certain behaviors are linked together. Snacking while watching television, listening to music while driving, and reading at bedtime are some simple examples. Once behaviors become linked, they are hard to unlink. If it is your habit to light up a cigarette each time you get into the car or to drink a smoothie after a run, try doing the first without the second and see how it feels. Failure to exercise the second behavior creates a feeling of anxiety and discomfort which many people find intolerable.
What’s more, linked and non-linked behaviors alike tend to cluster together, grouping themselves more broadly into one of two camps: unhealthy or healthy. For example, overeating, a fatty and starchy diet, smoking, excessive beer or other alcohol consumption, and erratic sleep patterns tend to form a group of behaviors which run together. Not all people who habitually indulge in one of these behaviors finds themselves addicted to any of the others. But the more unhealthy habits a person has, the more likely he or she is to develop additional ones. Healthy habits seem to work in the same way, with regular exercise, good eating habits, regular sleeping patterns, and lower alcohol consumption seeming to run together as well. Again, not all people who have established one healthy habit go on to incorporate any of the others, but the more healthy habits a person has, the more susceptible he or she seems to be to acquiring others.
The more healthy habits coalesce into a lifestyle, the more they seem to exclude unhealthy habits. For most people who engage in regular cardiovascular exercise, eat healthily, and take the right supplements, the very idea of smoking cigarettes is disgusting. Similarly, for people who smoke, drink beer daily, and regularly eat fast food high in fats and starches, the idea of taking a 30 minute run in the park sounds equally horrible. Healthy habits and unhealthy habits, as they coalesce into lifestyles, seem for the most part to be mutually exclusive of each other.