Habit is often viewed as a dirty word; as something to break. We hear most often of bad habits from the time we are young and it continues to carry that negative connotation well into adult hood, however habits pose a plethora of benefits and can be used in our favour. How, you ask? Well, the best way to figure that out is to break down what makes a habit in the first place.
The Duhigg Method
In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, which we’ve spoken about before, Harvard graduate and bestselling author, Charles Duhigg, states that behind every habit there is a “habit loop” consisting of three main components:
The Cue: Trigger that tells your brain which habit to perform in order to attain a reward.
The Routine: Physical or emotional action you take to obtain the reward.
The Reward: Satisfaction you seek upon performing the routine.
But how can you use these principles to get your fitness goals on track? What better example than the one he gave in the appendix of his book and this video.
In his example, Charles describes a bad habit of his own: eating cookies. Every day, he would get up from his desk and go upstairs to the cafeteria to buy and inevitably consume a cookie. It’s a habit that he was not happy about and one that he very much wanted to eliminate from his life. In this case he moved towards a cure by examining the reward he got from it. He considered 3 proponents: the food/sugar intake, the socialization aspect, and the escape from his desk/office. He tried a version of each possible reward that didn’t involve the cookie and was able to find out that the socializing moments he got out of going upstairs to get the cookie was the reward. He then found a way to get that same reward without the cookie. Subsequently, Charles managed to lose 12 pounds.
So let’s apply the three main components to working out in order to build the habit:
The Cue: This will be different for everyone but some examples could be, laying your gym clothes out next to your bed, setting an early alarm that reminds you to work out first thing in the morning or adjusting your drive home so that the gym is in your mind from the moment you leave work.
The Routine: This is going to be whatever your given work out plan is, from running, to cross fit to yoga, and if you need some added inspiration here, just check out some of our articles, and our profiles.
The Reward: Here’s where we could put a laundry list, ranging from chemical reactions in the body, such as the release of dopamine to the self-satisfaction and increased energy that comes from working out to the cosmetic benefits of looking in the mirror and loving your more fit appearance.
Making Exercise a Habit
Now that’s taking an approach from a habit expert and applying it to fitness. There are many other health and fitness experts who share their views on habits. James Clear, an American entrepreneur, photographer, and author of Atomic Habits, breaks it down in a very similar way using 3 steps.
The first step is to develop a ritual built around working out and that ritual will aid in making working out a mindless part of your day. In some cases, this can be as easy as carving out a specific time in your daily schedule that is for working out, and keeping that consistent.
James also points to a psychology concept known as Implementation intentions in which people who filled out this sentence:
During the next week, I will exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE]
were 2 to 3 times more likely to exercise in the long run.
Brett and Kate McKay laid out some incredible advice for how to make exercise an unbreakable habit.
They suggest something similar to Clear’s use of implementation intentions and putting your work out into your calendar. Carve out a time in your day that is for fitness and it will be easier to see that piece of time as having only one use. It’s also important to find out what time during your day you are more likely to have a successful workout and schedule it at those times.
Brett and Kate also suggest that you ritualize each and every aspect of your workout, not just the exercises themselves. Have clothes that you only wear when working out so that when you put them on, you are in a, “it’s time to work out mindset.” Fill your water bottle, tie your shoes, and have a pump up song ready to go and use that as your first song, each and every work out. This song will become an important part to building a habit, as hearing it will get your mind ready and in the right place to work out.
Clear’s second step is to start small. Build your new habit around an exercise that is so easy that you can you can always do it, even if you are lacking in willpower and can’t seem to get motivated to work out. He suggests using the 2 minute rule. In this situation, you focus on just getting going with the first 2 minutes of the workout rather than focusing on the entire work out which can seem daunting and imposing.
He suggests that if you are lacking the motivation to go for a run, “Just fill up your water bottle and put on your running shoes. That’s all you have to do to consider today’s workout a success. Often, this little 2 minute start will be enough to get your motivation flowing and help you finish the task.”
The McKay’s echo the belief in making your exercise routine achievable and suggest that you choose something you love, and if you’re an avid reader of this site, that advice will sound pretty familiar and for good reason. If you love doing something, it’s much easier to make that a habit. For example, if you don’t love running, but love racquetball, play more racquetball. If you love to cycle, or swim, then do that.
The final step for Clear is to focus on the habit ahead of the results. This isn’t a new issue when it comes to fitness, as people become discouraged and give upon their fitness when they just aren’t seeing the results.
In this method, success is measured, not with the results of your work outs, but with the successful maintenance of the habit itself, therefore if you go to the gym five days in a row for even just 5 minutes, you have succeeded and that success helps motivate you to keep going. If you keep going you will build a successful habit and that habit will yield the results that you’re looking for.
The McKay’s also push towards exercise frequency over having amazing, mind blowing work outs. This will allow you to continue the habit regardless of the excuses that often derail building a positive fitness habit. If you’re feeling sick or a little bit sore, then you focus on getting any work out in and don’t skip it just because you can’t go all out. Don’t have a couple of hours today to work out? Get in 15 minutes. If you focus on working out every day, then eventually you will just work out every day.
The McKay’s also suggest that you always head into a work out with a plan. If you know what you’re planning on doing, you go into it knowing that this exercise is first, and then you’re moving on to the next and so on, so that you never lose your focus by stopping having to think about where you are going next.
The focus on building a positive fitness habit is a key aspect to the success of anyone’s fitness journey. Those that don’t approach it like this and are still successful were able to create the habit without putting the focus on it, but for those who are having trouble getting started and staying consistent should take the steps necessary to create a habit.
Lorne’s Take: Charles, as well as all the knowledgeable fitness experts mentioned, make great points. So much of Fitness and Nutrition is developing the right habits