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What is a habit and why does it matter?

Published: 12/03/2024

By understanding behavioural economics, we can be much more effective in helping clients make positive lifestyle choices, form long-lasting healthy habits and ultimately live longer.

With most New Year’s resolutions failing by February, there’s a good chance many of us will have waved goodbye to the good intentions we set ourselves at the start of the year.

Whether it’s doing more exercise or eating a healthier diet, actually making positive lifestyle changes many of us know we need to make isn’t always easy.

Overcoming optimism bias

As humans, we are also pretty irrational, and mustn’t underestimate the influence that our behavioural biases can have over the decisions we make.

The study of behavioural economics tells us that our cognitive biases often mean we’ll favour instant gratification.

As Vitality’s Director of Health Strategy Dr Katie Tryon says: “we discount the future value of something because it’s so far away. It suddenly seems really hard to go for that run because you’re thinking ‘I want to run 10k in six months’ time, but I don’t want to get out of bed at six o’clock in the morning because it’s dark’.”

We also tend to be “massively over-optimistic” according to Dr Katie and whether it’s the likelihood of actually sticking to a goal or appreciating certain health and life risks, optimism bias can often lead us to making suboptimal decisions.

Advisers will be all too familiar with a lot of this. How often have you heard a client say “I really must get around to sorting out my insurance” or struggle to perceive the longer-term intangible value of insurance.

So, what is a habit?

Habits are a chosen behaviour driven by a specific desire, which when repeated frequently enough become something we do almost automatically. Consequently, we can predict people’s habits based on past behaviour.

Studies suggest that around 40% of our lives are controlled by habits, many of which can be both beneficial and detrimental to our health. Unfortunately, many of our unhealthy habits and choices are leading us to live in poorer health.

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Why (un)healthy habits matter

Lifestyle choices and behaviours such as physical inactivity, poor diet and excess alcohol consumption account for around 70% of deaths worldwide1.

In the UK, diseases caused by lifestyle risks are also placing an increasingly unsustainable cost burden on public healthcare systems. Around 40% of the NHS budget is spent on non-communicable diseases2, with illnesses relating to obesity alone costing as much as £6.5bn3.

Around five million people are estimated to have diabetes in the UK, with type 2 diabetes accounting for 90%, with 10% of the NHS annual budget spent on diabetes treatments4.

It’s clear there are huge benefits to be made from making small, consistent changes to build healthier habits, that have an impact both at an individual level, as well as to wider society and even the economy.

The benefits of building habits

According to new research from Vitality and the London School of Economics (LSE), people who sustain a habit of 10,000 steps, three times a week, for three years can reduce their type 2 diabetes risk by up to 41%5. By increasing the frequency of exercise to four or more times a week, clients can see a 57% reduction in risk of developing type 2 diabetes5.

Similarly, there are major benefits for those with the condition already. A 55-year-old with type 2 diabetes who changes from limited physical activity to sustain a habit of 5,000 steps three times a week, reduces their all-cause mortality risk by 40%5.

The key to success

Because habits are resilient, once formed it’s highly likely we’ll maintain them.

Findings from the Vitality Habit Index also show that a strong habit, i.e. one with a high degree of predictability and consistency, can be achieved within seven to 15 weeks and that the majority achieve a habit at the nine to 10 week mark5.

The key to success though, whether it’s committing to more exercise, eating better or cutting down on things like smoking, is to be realistic about what we can achieve and what will be sustainable.

It’s no good trying to ‘go big’ and to expect immediate results. Instead, according to Dr Katie Tryon it’s about building “habits slowly over time” and having a journey in mind to get there. “We’re not going to change our lives on a sixpence”, says Dr Katie, we’ve got to be realistic about what will work in our real lives.

Reward and incentivisation

Approaching healthy habits with a goal in mind and acknowledging small successes can help us overcome some of those biases that might otherwise hold us back.

It’s why, according to Dr Katie, “rewards and incentivisation can be so important” in bringing forward the benefits of whatever it is we’re trying to achieve. In other words, if doing something brings us an immediate return, we’re more likely to stick to it as it satisfies our desire for immediate gratification (also known as ‘hyperbolic discounting’ among behavioural economists).

The Vitality Programme – the world’s largest health and wellbeing behaviour change programme linked to insurance – is a perfect example of this playing out in practise.

We see from our member experience that through an intuitive set of rewards and benefits, we can help people to form healthy habits that they’re more likely to stick to and drive much higher engagement compared to other wellbeing programmes. 10 times more engaging, in fact6.

In turn, this helps to improve people’s overall the health and financial resilience and create healthier, happier, more engaged clients. Which is good for them, good for us and good for society.

Find out more about how Vitality's health insurance can help your clients live in better health, whilst providing access to an expanding range of everyday care benefits.

Where to next?

  • Health leaders call for preventative approach to healthcare

    A landmark report into the state of health and social care in Britain, using Vitality data, was recently published at The Times Health Summit in London.

  • Prevention is in our DNA

    iven high demand and rising claims incidence, embedding prevention into private medical insurance (PMI) is helping to manage costs and deliver better health outcomes.

  • Insights Hub

    Our Insights Hub brings your our range of adviser content - from video series to articles & blogs.

1 Noncommunicable diseases (
2 Together we can revolutionise the NHS through individual responsibility - GOV.UK (
3 Government plans to tackle obesity in England - Department of Health and Social Care Media Centre
4 How Many People Have Diabetes - Diabetes Prevalence Numbers
5 The Vitality Habit Index, March 2024
6 Based on Vitality member engagement, 2022