Neuroscience can help you live a healthier life

Srini Pillay, MD
Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor

Follow me at @srinipillay

Healthy behaviors clearly make sense from a rational standpoint, but they can be a drag — and difficult to maintain. For example, there are few people who doubt the beneficial effects of exercise, yet one study found that close to 75% of people either do not exercise at all or exercise only seldomly. Eating healthily is also important, yet more than a third of all adults are obese. It’s not because we’re ignorant or because we aren’t motivated to adopt healthy behaviors. It’s just very difficult to stay the course.

Here are some strategies to help you develop and maintain healthy behaviors.

Combat stress

In an ideal world, it would be great to be able to reflect on each choice prior to making it. Yet, under stress, our brains tend to be reflexive rather than reflective. When we are reflexive, we tend to go back to old habits that are the established “default” pathways in our brains. For example, excessive sugar consumption is a risk factor for obesity, yet sugar also decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which is why people may get hooked on it. In general, stress prompts habit behavior in humans, so dealing first and foremost with stress is probably advisable when you’re looking to make lasting changes. Luckily, your brain can change throughout life. This means that decreasing stress could ultimately help your brain become less vulnerable to habit.

People tend to focus on themselves when stressed, but a recent study showed that helping others may significantly decrease the negative effect of stress on your body. This may be due to the protective anti-stress effects of the hormone oxytocin. Another study affirmed these findings by showing that helping others may help you live longer.

Also, people who find meaning in their adversity and focus on the benefits of their hard times deal much more effectively with stress. To that end, what could you learn from the stressors in your life now? How could they make things better? For example, people who lose a dear friend may learn to appreciate others more. Those who’ve had financial difficulties may learn to save more effectively. Looking for the silver lining in a cloud can be more than just a “fake” refocusing of your mind. If you do it authentically, it can reduce the negative impact of stress.

Set meaningful goals

Setting goals can help you think more clearly and stay motivated, yet for many people, this approach does not work. A recent study provided an explanation for why this may be. Beyond your conscious goals, there are many unconscious goals also competing for attention. For example, while weight loss may be your conscious goal, stress relief may be your unconscious goal. While healthy eating may be your conscious goal, this may take a back seat to resolving relationship difficulties. All around, goals are selfish. It’s every goal for itself in the human brain. If your health-related goal doesn’t have special preference, it may fail you. It helps to attach a “priority tag” to the goals that are most important to you.

To do this, you need to delve a little more deeply — that is, ask yourself why your goal matters to you. Things like looking good, living longer, enjoying life, avoiding dementia, and understanding that being unhealthy-but-wealthy is suboptimal for you may all help your goal gain priority. To make changes for the better, your health-related goals should be the goals above all other goals. When you elevate their importance by thinking of them in ways like these, they will beat out other goals in your brain.

Design intentions that your brain will respond to

Finally, your brain responds to two types of intentions — goal and implementation intentions. Goal intentions are broad and non-specific. Implementation intentions are quite specific. Studies show that breaking all goal intentions into more specific intentions can go a long way. For instance, rather than just planning to work out, specify the time and place, or even the change you are seeking in pounds. When you spell things out for your brain, it can access that goal more readily than when you are vague and non-specific.

Habits are a powerful force that make change difficult. Yet, decreasing stress, attaching a priority tag to your goal, and being more specific will prepare your brain more adequately for the changes that will support your life.


  1. Auri Ruiz-Asencio

    Thank you, Dr. Pillay! I think this is the perfect thing I needed to read, just to find out why do I know what I have to do, but I never do. Now I understand what is happenning to me and now I am able to work with my problem: I need to excersise, I pay all the fees at the gym and I never go!! ?
    Thank you again.

  2. Sandra

    Thank you Dr. Pillay for this wonderful article. One step at a time and health goes first.

    • Srini Pillay

      Thanks Sandra. Yes—and you can tinker around with the changes you want until they make sense to you too. I’m a big believer in tinkering until goals suit you.

  3. Andrés G. Niño

    This article based on neuroscience helps me to clarify some of the difficult interplay of forces within the individual struggling with a moral decision. I work on the topic of Augustine’s act of therapy, described in the Confessions (book 8) still so valid in our human experience today. In that regard, I also find Dr Pillay’s observations quite useful for integration into various forms of spiritual discernment and counseling.

  4. Diane

    This information is extremely useful — I have several large goals at this time in my life, and I find that I always make the best progress when I “chunk” them into smaller, more manageable pieces. Setting those specific accountability goals, such as completing a small task by a set date, is the most helpful action I can take.

    Thank you, Dr. Pillay, for this clear and concise article.

    • Srini Pillay

      Thanks Diane. Really glad that this confirms your experience. One more thing to add then—when you set a goal, and then break it down, it helps to not have a second one in the wings in case the first fails. Rather, designing a second one subsequently may help. Plan B’s interfere with self-control. Here’s the research:
      Hope that adds to your tool kit.