Forming Fitness Habits
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” This is erroneously attributed to Aristotle, but he’s actually being paraphrased by Pulitzer-winning author Will Durant.
When it comes to exercise, regular movement and eating well, I’d like you to learn to be excellent at these things. And you become excellent by making them habits; making them so automatic that eventually you don’t even need to think about doing them. They become a part of who you are. Eventually, it’s sort of like cruising on autopilot, where you don’t have to rely on motivation so much, but instead, you just do your thing.
Well, kinda. There will always be days when you just need to suck it up and do it. But fitness habits are valuable things to have, so start with a …
Focus on Feasibility
The easier a habit is to integrate into your life, the more likely it will stick. Part of habit formation has to do with accessibility. If you’re doing a goji berry diet, what happens when you can’t find those berries? If your fitness routine is all about Zumba or CrossFit classes, what do you do when you can’t get to a class?
So rather than talk about going on the organic Himalayan turkey diet, I recommend having a flexible approach to eating that allows for regular indulgence. Rather than always doing a specific, detailed training regimen that requires a gymnasium full of equipment, it’s also worthwhile engaging in movement that can be done anywhere, at any time, by anyone.
But it’s important for you to know that …
Willpower Is Not a Significant Contributor to Habit Formation
So many think that weight loss is a matter of willpower, and those who are overweight are just lazy. This is patently untrue.
The reality is that forming habits that lead to weight loss, and to keeping the weight off, have little to do with the strength of a person’s will. In fact, taking an approach that relies heavily on willpower is a recipe for failure, because it implies that you are struggling to adopt a behavior that is overly difficult; it’s something that you’d rather not be doing if it requires a lot of willpower.
Instead, it is necessary to look at adopting these behaviors in ways that are so easy that they can become automatic, with minimal willpower required.
A 2010 study of 96 people published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that using willpower to create a healthy new habit via repetition was only part of the overall equation, and that there are numerous other factors at play that help make form and keep good habits.1
What kind of factors other than willpower affect habit formation? I’m glad you asked.
Keep it Simple
Adopting a regular regimen of structured physical activity or “exercise” is anything but simple. Non-exercise activity – physical activity that you do outside of sport or exercise – can be very simple, however, and that’s a good thing because the more simple a behavior is, the easier it is to make into a habit.
I’m not discouraging exercise, but if you’re really struggling with things like running, fitness classes or gym attendance, non-exercise activity, which I discussed in yesterday’s post, NEAT could be your savior because it comes with myriad health benefits and burns a lot more calories than people think.
The problem with turning a complex behavior into a habit is that it requires too much thinking, and the more brain power required, the less automatic it can become. According to the 2010 European Journal of Social Psychology study mentioned above, “complex tasks were associated with more thoughts about the task during its performance than simple tasks, indicating that they may be less automatic.” The study also reported that it takes significantly longer to make a complex task into a habit than it does for a simple task, and even then the strength of the more complex habit is lower.2
And a 1997 report in Health Education Research drives this point home with an example: “relatively simple exercise behaviors (e.g. walking, cycling) may more easily become habitual than behaviors that are rather complex (e.g. attending an organized fitness program), because the latter behaviors are more subjected to facilities, and probably need more intentional effort and planning to occur. Moreover, activities such as walking and cycling can be incorporated in existing routinized daily life, e.g. choosing the bicycle as mode of transport to go to work.”3
More walking is a simple solution that doesn’t involve a gym membership or taking a fitness class at a specific time. And since you already know how to walk, no training is required either. That doesn’t mean classes aren’t also valuable, however, as they often come with built in motivation through the social support they offer. It’s an individual decision to find out what works for you.
Take Your Time
I have heard it said that it takes 30 days to either make or break a habit. I’ve also heard that it is as short as 21 days.
It probably takes longer than either of those time frames.
The goal with a habit is to reach a “plateau” of adherence, where it’s as ingrained into your behavior as it can get. In the 2010 study referenced earlier, the authors reported, “The average modeled time to plateau in this sample was 66 days, but the range was from 18 to 254 days.”4
All this means is that there is more effort required on the front end in order to form the habit, but after a couple of months it gets easier to the point that you don’t have to think about it much anymore.
There will still be challenges in integrating these behaviors into your life in the early stages. It is critical to remember that these challenges will lessen with time. In mere days and short weeks the habit will take over, and the need for willpower will become less and less.
Before long, these habits become something you just do because you have learned how to …
Make it Automatic
Every time I get in my car, I put on my seatbelt. I don’t have to think about it at all. It is just something that I do. It is automatic. It is a habit.
It is so ingrained that it would feel very wrong to me to not have my seatbelt on. That is the goal with these new lifestyle habits: to make them so automatic that you don’t have to think about it anymore, and even to get to the point that it feels wrong when you don’t do them.
And there is value in not having to think about something. Thinking about doing something means willpower is required, and as I already pointed out, relying on willpower only works for a short time, and is a recipe for failure over the long hall. Thinking also gives you the opportunity to talk yourself out of doing something. And this is why yoyo dieting is so rampant, because people rely on complex exercise programs and restrictive diets that tax their willpower and brainpower to the limit.
A 2012 report published in Implementation Science stressed the importance of making a habit automatic: “they are enacted without purposeful thinking, largely without any sense of awareness.” The paper also stressed that frequency of the behavior was a critical component in creating the habit.5 And in the 1997 Health Education Research report the authors stated that, “when a habit is performed many times, one does not need to weight pros and cons or to check up one’s attitudes and behavioral control in order to arrive at a choice.”6 Think of how often people have to have a mental struggle each time they decide to go to the gym to workout. The goal is to remove that struggle.
Speaking of struggle, the research mentioned the power of frequency for creating a stronger habit that is automatic and done without struggle. This is why it is important to practice them as often as possible. Back in the days when I had a regular job, the first thing I did when I went down to the kitchen was make a healthy lunch for work, knowing that those were the only calories I was going to consume while at the office, even though there were always lots of snacks around my place of business. Nowadays, another cue I use is my wife getting home from work. As soon as she walks in the door I whip out the blender and make us a veggie smoothie. It’s very low calorie, super healthy, and surprisingly filling so that when we eat dinner, we’re not famished and not tempted to eat a huge plate full of food.
It things like this that help healthy habits become automatic. This lifestyle will become something you just do without even having to think about it.
Don’t Do Just One Thing
If you only do the movement part, this isn’t going to work. If you only do the eating part, it still won’t work. It takes mental shift + movement + better sleep + less screen time + dietary changes not only to achieve your goals but also to achieve sustainability and full integration of habits.
A 2004 study published in the International Journal of Obesity of 1,247 participants over a three-year period looked at what types of behaviors were most associated with long-term weight loss, and they found that those who changed their lifestyle as a whole were far more successful than changing any one thing.7 Ergo, just going low carb won’t do it. And just walking more won’t do it either. It’s a whole bunch of things in conjunction that not only create a synergistic effect in terms of efficacy but to create enough change in your life that you make a full mental shift that prompts you to stick with it.
In other words, if you only change one or two things, it’s easy to change back. To a certain degree, you have to become a different person for it to stick.
For me, clutter is a cue. As soon as my mind says, This place is a mess, I know it’s time to set aside writing and do a quick bout of tidying.
In the 2010 European Journal of Social Psychology study, the authors asserted that, “Repeating a behavior in response to a cue appeared to be enough for many people to develop automaticity for that behavior.” They also stated that having the cue depend on something external rather than having it be a scheduled behavior made it easier to adopt.8
What does that last part mean? The problem with scheduled behavior such as “I will take a walk at 7pm” is that it requires monitoring to identify the time to engage in the behavior. Monitoring makes things much less automatic, and you want your habits to be automatic.
Conversely, instead of it being tied to a specific time, it can be tied to an external cue that makes it more automatic. It can be as simple as changing “7pm” to “after dinner.” Doing something after dinner doesn’t require watching a clock. If you just make it so that after dinner = walking instead of scheduling it at a specific time, you’re on your way to it being automatic. It could also be something like going for a run first thing in the morning. There are plenty of times that the only things I do before a morning run are pee and brush my teeth.
There are many ways to integrate activity via external cues, such as:
- Set your watch to beep every hour so that you get up and move for a few minutes.
- Do some basic physical activity during television commercial breaks.
- When you see a mess, take some action to clean some of it up.
- If you feel like your butt or back feel a little stiff from sitting, use this as a cue to get up and move.
Do It In Parallel
Doing activity in parallel with another activity can get over that “lack of time” issue so many state. For my wife, she often walks on a cheap, used treadmill we have in the basement while reading documents for an upcoming meeting. We also do some relationship bonding during walks all the time, where we get away from kids and phones and TV and just talk to each other about husband and wife stuff. Another thing I do is when people suggest we meet for coffee, I suggest we meet and take a walk. Coffee can be included in this, because I love the taste of a good Starbucks. (Note: regular coffee with some milk, not some high-calorie concoction.)
The 2012 Implementation Science paper extolled the virtues of activity done in parallel with other activities because not only does it utilize the power of cues, but it also helps to make the activity more automatic.9
Some people like having a treadmill desk, but that can be a tall order. It can be overwhelming to ask someone who is so used to sitting to stand and walk all day long. Your employer may not be supportive of such an expensive piece of equipment being put into your office space either.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t work and move at the same time.
Perhaps your job requires time spent talking on the telephone. You can create an automatic behavior so that every time you are on the phone, you stand and pace your workspace. The ringing of the phone or the need to make a call is an external cue that gets you to stand up and pace.
Personally, I have found that I think more clearly when I’m on my feet and moving rather than sitting down, so this can actually make you more effective at your job as well. This is using the power of the cue (being on the phone) as an automatic reminder for you to move, as well as making sure that you’re doing something in parallel (again, talking on the phone) which helps to make it even more automatic of a habit because it allows you to do the activity with minimal awareness that you are doing the activity.
No Reward Necessary
I’ve seen many articles and books advising that you reward yourself for your good behavior, but that you be careful that you not reward yourself with food. The second part of that advice is very good, but is the first part even necessary?
For people who are trying to adopt a regimen of structured physical activity, it may well be good advice, but for the type of NEAT activity I referenced in yesterday’s post, it probably isn’t required.
The 2012 Implementation Science piece stated that, “There is also recognition that rewards are not necessary for habit formation when a behavior is intrinsically rewarding.”10 That means it is something that you like doing. Well, I like standing up and pacing while on the phone, just as you can learn to like movement throughout the day as long as it’s done on your terms and specific to your personality and your situation.
It is worth noting that a 2013 study of 192 people published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine came to similar conclusions about the lack of a need for reward, especially if the habit is well formed.11
Here’s a recap of what it takes to form healthy habits that lead to sustainable weight loss:
- Take it easy – focus on doing things that are feasible for you at this point in your life. Don’t go off chasing the impossible.
- Keep it simple – the more complex a new task is, the harder it is to make it become a regular habit.
- Take your time – realize that habits take time to form, and that they get easier to stick with the more that time passes.
- Focus on frequency – the more often you engage in a new habit, the more ingrained – the more automatic – it becomes.
- Change more than one thing – to be successful at not just weight loss, but long term lifestyle change, it’s not about integrating just one new habit, but several, so you convince your inner self that you truly are on a new path.
- Use cues as reminders – instead of scheduling a time of day for a task, associate it with something that always happens, so when X takes place, you do Y.
- Create parallel activities – as a time saving measure as well as a way to increase the frequency with which you engage in a new habit, do it alongside other tasks, such as talking on the phone and standing, or meeting a friend for coffee and walking.
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James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com.
- Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology , 40(6).
- Aarts, H., Paulussen, T., & Schaalma, H. (1997). Physical exercise habit: on the conceptualization and formation of habitual health behaviors. Health Education Research, 12(3), 363-74.
- Lally et al., “How are habits formed.”
- Nilsen, P., Roback, K., Broström, K. & Ellström, P.E. (2012). Creatures of habit: accounting for the role of habit in implementation research on clinical behavior change. Implementation Science, 7(53).
- Aarts et al., “Physical exercise habit.”
- Lally et al., “How habits are formed.”
- Nilsen et al., “Creatures of habit.”
- Gardner, B., & Lally , P. (2013). Does intrinsic motivation strengthen physical activity habit? modelling relationships between self-determination, past behavior, and habit strength. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 36(5), 488-497.