To make exercise a habit, there are a few key factors that can help influence success in this goal. In this post, dive into the research behind habit-building, how it applies to exercise, and specific hacks on how to be successful at it for long-term health.
The Science of Habit
What is a habit?
The dictionary says “A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”
In the scientific literature, actions can be categorized as goal-directed or habitual (Dezfouli and Balleine 2012). Here’s the difference:
I chose to make coffee in the morning because I feel tired. (Goal-directed action)
I make coffee in the morning because its part of my routine, regardless of how I feel. (Habit-directed action)
In the first example, you perform an action because you want to accomplish something, feeling awake for the day. In the second statement, you perform an action because it is automatic, you are not actively thinking about a goal.
If you are here, I imagine you already have the goal, or at least the desire, to be healthy and happy. Wanting to exercise and actually exercising regularly are two very different things. For most people (including myself), the desire to get healthy may fuel a strong initial motivation to exercise, but isn’t enough. Wouldn’t it be nice if exercise became a little more automatic? Having goals and intentions are extremely important, but I’d like to view habit-forming as a building block to the sustainable consistency that we all could benefit from. The action to get movement in during the day can be both goal-oriented and habitual. The habit will support the goal.
How habits work on a brain level
Habits are triggered by cues. A dark room is the cue to flip a light switch, having cookies on the counter cues you to eat one, and a red light while driving cues you to brake. Cues lead to behavior and behaviors lead to reward (dopamine). When dopamine is released, the brain strengthens that behavior’s neural pathway. See the habit loop below.
“Whatever your daily behaviors are, whatever you repeat over and over again, that’s what the brain decides is important…it doesn’t matter if it’s something that’s good for you like exercising, or whether its something that’s bad for you like smoking, or whether it’s something that’s just needed like driving a car.” -Marco Badwal, Cognitive Neuroscientist
The more time a behavior is repeated, connections form in the brain and get stronger. Our brain makes very important behaviors cost less energy. Think about when you first learned to drive. You had to actively think about the rules of the road, when to turn your blinker on, how to make a 3 point turn. Now that you’ve had to drive most days of your life, there is minimal effort, you would be able to drink coffee at the same time or tune into a podcast – it’s automatic.
“Make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.”William James, American Philosopher and Psychologist
The Science of Exercise Habits
How exercise is different
Why is it so much easier to develop the habit of eating cookies over the habit of exercise? Think back to the habit loop above. The reward of eating cookies comes immediately after performing the behavior (reducing hunger, tasting good, etc.), but exercise doesn’t work this way. With exercise, it may not immediately leave you satisfied and can even cause pain through muscle soreness. And if you are measuring your success with exercise by something externally like weight loss or appearance, those rewards don’t show up right away.
While this difference may sound discouraging, exercise actually does come with more immediate rewards. We just tend not to focus on them as much thanks to the fitness industry glorifying perfect abs and thigh gaps. The short-term rewards I tend to focus on include better energy levels, higher quality of sleep, feelings of accomplishment, better mood, mental clarity, and decreased neck and back pain. If we see the more immediate value that movement adds to our life, we will be more likely to choose it.
How long does it actually take to form an exercise habit?
You may have heard quite a few numbers thrown out. It takes 21 days to form a habit? 30 days?
A 2010 study by University College London looked at how many days it took for certain types of behaviors to become an automatic habit, including various exercise habits. Subjects were studied for 84 days and it showed that exercise was the type of behavior that took the longest to become automatic. Of the habit types included in the study (eating, drinking, or exercising), time to reach automaticity ranged from 18 to 254 days, with the median time 66 days. “It is notable that the exercise group took one and a half times longer to reach their asymptote than the other two groups. Given that exercising can be considered more complex than eating or drinking, this supports the proposal that complexity of the behaviour impacts the development of automaticity. (Lally et al. 2010).
Based on this information, I would give yourself approximately 90 days to form a movement habit, but always keep in mind this process is very individual.
Keep it simple to build confidence
In a 2012 review on how healthcare practitioners can facilitate behavior change in patients, they noted that small, incremental changes are the more effective and achievable. “Moreover, simpler actions become habitual more quickly. Additionally, behaviour change achievements, however small, can increase self-efficacy, which can in turn stimulate pursuit of further changes. Forming one ‘small’ healthy habit may thereby increase self-confidence for working towards other health-promoting habits” (Gardner et al. 2012).
“…behaviour change achievements, however small, can increase self-efficacy, which can in turn stimulate pursuit of further changes.”Gardner et al. 2012
Why? The reason why you want to form this habit should be strong. What will more movement actually add to your life? Stop falling for the fitness industry’s trap of trying to sell your body perfection. Strengthen your “why” with my free workbook here or learn how I came to my why here.
Flexibility. If your commitment to this habit doesn’t go as planned, will you give up? To be honest, it likely won’t go perfectly or as planned. If you miss a day you intended to workout, how do you respond mentally? In this situation it is easy to revert to negative self-talk, but research shows missing an opportunity does not compromise habit development (Lally et al. 2011).
Simplicity. Evidence shows that when clinicians’ recommendations are complex, risk for nonadherence increases (Stonewall and Blumenthal 2016). The more elaborate your plans are, the more you are at risk for giving up. I used to create the “perfectionist workout schedule” where I detailed exactly when I would run, lift, do yoga, etc. but that plan would never be sustainable.
Self-efficacy. According to the American Psychological Association, self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments. Do you believe you can make movement and exercise a joyful habit? Dive more into this in my mindset workbook here.
Steps to Flexible Habit-Building
1. Pick a first small step that is practical for your lifestyle. I.e. Exercising 3 days a week for 15-20 mins.
2. Find your cues and create your environment. I.e. Leaving your yoga mat or running shoes somewhere you see them often.
3. Pick a time that you would usually be available physically and energetically to exercise. Set reminders on your phone. If you are not a morning person, don’t chose 5 am! If you’re always exhausted by the evening, exercise in the morning or during a lunch break.
3. Get a log for accountability. Put the physical log somewhere that you will encounter it everyday, like your bathroom mirror. You can download and print one that I made at the end of this post!
4. Pick ONE short-term outcome to measure over time that you can track. This should not be appearance/weight related, but rather something you can notice within a day of the exercise. I.e. Tracking quality of sleep, stress levels, energy levels.
5. Slowly increase frequency of exercise days after a few weeks of success in your first small step. If you started with three times per week, aim for four.
6. If something isn’t working, assess what barriers exist to staying on track. Ask why and address the underlying concern. I.e. If you’re reason for not exercising is feeling exhausted, take steps to improving quality of sleep.
7. Log for at least 90 days. Even if within those 90 days, you take a whole 2 weeks off of exercising, just keep going – consistency is key. Drop your email below to use my log that is based on all the evidence mentioned in this post, and follow my Instagram to learn how to use it most effectively.
Dezfouli, A., & Balleine, B. W. (2012). Habits, action sequences and reinforcement learning. The European journal of neuroscience, 35(7), 1036–1051. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-9568.2012.08050.x
Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 62(605), 664–666. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp12X659466
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
Stonerock, G. L., & Blumenthal, J. A. (2017). Role of Counseling to Promote Adherence in Healthy Lifestyle Medicine: Strategies to Improve Exercise Adherence and Enhance Physical Activity. Progress in cardiovascular diseases, 59(5), 455–462. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcad.2016.09.003