- Posted by Covent Garden Physio
- On 16th January 2019
- 0 Comments
- exercise, Exercise Tips, Habit-forming, Habits
A habit is a behaviour which is performed automatically in response to environmental cues. Brushing your teeth is a good example, you (hopefully) do it when you wake up and before you go to sleep without having to think about it.
At some point, brushing your teeth wouldn’t have been a habit, and it was only through repeatedly performing the action at set times that the behaviour became automatic. The goal with my patients is for exercise or other healthy changes to be as set in stone in their routine as brushing their teeth is.
How long it takes for an action to become a habit depends on the person, the action and how meaningful said action is to them. If something that you’re doing feels like a nagging task or a responsibility rather than something you do automatically, it hasn’t become a habit yet.
The most commonly cited study puts the average time for a habit to form at 66 days, but the range amongst participants was between 18 and 300. This means that you shouldn’t become discouraged if you hit 66 days and still struggle to exercise consistently.
As long as you don’t simply hate the exercise routine you’re attempting (in which case I’d recommend finding a different exercise or activity), the following tips will help you turn a fitness resolution into habits that can last a lifetime.
Add your new behaviour to an existing habit
Going back to brushing your teeth: you don’t brush them every time you go into the bathroom, so that can’t be the only cue. The habit is part of a chain of habits: your alarm goes off, you get out of bed, use the bathroom, brush your teeth, shower, get dressed etc.
Habits form more successfully if they are inserted into part of an existing chain. Think of how many individual habits form your complete morning routine. Interestingly, where you place the new habit in the chain also plays a part in its success.
One study compared two groups who were both trying to introduce flossing into their routine. One group flossed before brushing their teeth and the other flossed after.
The group that flossed afterwards were much better at maintaining their new habit. It’s believed that the existing habit of brushing their teeth formed the cue for the new habit, and thus made it easier to adopt, while the other group had to remind themselves without a cue to help them.
In the case of exercise, you should try to insert it into either your morning or post-work routine as there are existing habits to use as cues. Weekend exercise, in my experience, is far less consistent, as there is no set schedule to build upon.
Have both short and long term goals and record your progress
Working towards meaningful goals will help you maintain a positive attitude towards your exercise and reward you with a sense of achievement. You should have a combination of short and long term goals so that you are regularly ticking off smaller achievements on the way towards a larger objective.
I encourage my patients to keep a record of their exercise, including how they feel after working out and how they feel if they don’t. Diarising your experience allows you to track your progress, while recording your feelings reinforces your emotional connection to the exercise.
Typically, when reviewing their diaries, my patients find they struggled early on both physically and emotionally but, after a few weeks, the exercise leaves them feeling invigorated while missing a day makes them feel bad.
Reward yourself immediately after exercise
Simple conditioning goes a long way to reinforcing a habit. Rewarding yourself on completing your exercise or for achieving your goals will form an association between exercise and pleasure which will help to motivate you through the inevitable struggles.
Research has shown that rewards are most effective when given immediately after the task rather than at the end of the week or the month when the reward is so abstract that it doesn’t motivate you in the moment.
They should also only be possible following the action. For example, if I reward my exercise with a slice of cake when I get home it’s less effective because there’s nothing stopping me from having that cake whenever I want. However, if I buy the cake from the bakery on the way back from the gym, I have to go to the gym in order to be able to receive the reward.
Exercise with friends or a personal trainer
It’s much more difficult to maintain the discipline necessary to form a habit when you only have yourself to hold you accountable. Exercising with a friend or hiring a personal trainer adds a social element to your routine and a layer of accountability.
This can be a reward in its own right. If you have a busy schedule, a visit to the gym can provide a rare opportunity to meet equally busy friends. You can also encourage and reward each other, while the fear of letting the other person down can be a powerful motivator.
Good personal trainers combine this social element with expertise on how to stay motivated or adjust routines when you’re struggling. Hiring a trainer also provides a financial incentive to succeed as you don’t want to waste your money.
Physiotherapists help our clients form habits every day
Successful physiotherapy involves more than just resolving a current injury but also using the time as an opportunity to encourage our patients to make healthy changes in their life which will prevent future injuries from occurring.
But you don’t need to be injured for us to help you. If you’re struggling to keep up with your exercise routine, feel yourself in a unsatisfying plateau or don’t know where to start, we can help you make meaningful, lasting change to your health and fitness.