We all know how hard bad habits are to break, especially when it comes to diet and exercise. Too often for many of us, pizza wins out over salad and television time trumps working out. Once you start down that path, it feels next to impossible to reverse course and change your behavior.
Fortunately, it is much the same way with healthy habits. When you make positive choices again and again, it becomes ingrained in your lifestyle. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel so hard to convince yourself to wake up in the morning and go for a walk—it’s just something you do every day. And that salad—it’s part of your nightly dinner routine. Making the unhealthy choice begins to feel foreign, in a similar way to how healthy decisions may have once felt.
The most recent research on the subject suggests that it takes around 66 days to form a habit. To determine this, researchers in the U.K. had 96 people choose a new habit they wanted to develop, then surveyed them every day for 12 weeks. It turned out that, on average, it took participants 66 days before a particular choice became automatic or habitual.
When it comes to forming an exercise habit, we in the fitness business refer to what is called the “transtheoretical model for change.” This model charts the various points at which people fall on the continuum of behavior change. Understanding where you are in this cycle can help you make a plan for developing habits related to exercise that will help you reach your end goal of leading a healthier life:
Pre-contemplation: You don’t exercise, nor do you have any plans to exercise in the near future
Contemplation: You’re thinking about starting to exercise.
Preparation: You’ve made plans to exercise in the next 30 days.
Action: You’ve begun to exercise regularly but have been subscribing to the routine for less than six months.
Maintenance: You’ve been exercising regularly for more than six months, and it has become a part of your daily routine.
The goal is to reach the “maintenance” phase. The way to do that is to begin making small and sometimes seemingly insignificant choices over and over until they become habits. Whether you want to lose weight, have more energy or simply improve the quality of your life, here are the top five proven habits that will help you adhere to a regular workout routine:
1. Set goals.
Getting in the habit of setting regular goals has been demonstrated to increase adherence to exercise. More specifically,studies show that intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, goals are associated with pursuing an exercise program with greater persistence. This means that you’re more likely to continue with an exercise plan when you’re focused on internal goals, like exercise enjoyment or an increase in energy, rather than external goals, such as physique or recognition from others.
2. Reward yourself.
Research has proven that incentivizing exercise can help you commit to physical activity. Perhaps you make a habit of allowing yourself to go out for a fancy dinner once a month if you’ve reached your exercise goals for the past 30 days. Or maybe you buy yourself a new piece of workout equipment or outfit for every 5 pounds lost. Whatever it is that keeps you motivated, make a habit out of celebrating small triumphs; it can keep your momentum going.
3. Mix up your activities.
Research has shown that variety in an exercise routine can increase adherence to regular physical activity. In one study, participants switched between various types of cardiovascular exercise, including using a stationary bike, treadmill, StairMaster and row ergometer, but you could choose a whole host of other activities. It has been speculated that this type of variety helps stave off boredom, thereby keeping you engaged in the task at hand. By making a habit of switching things up from one day to the next, you’re more likely to stick with a program over time.
4. Track your progress.
By simply waking up each morning and putting on an activity tracker, you may be increasing your likelihood of sticking to exercise over the long haul. Research shows that tracking steps helps motivate people to take more steps and increase their daily physical activity levels. What’s more, it will provide a log of long-term progress, which is motivating in and of itself.
5. Recruit friends and family.
Social support can play a major role in predicting your success in an exercise program. Indeed, one study showed that it is among the most important factors in determining whether or not you stick with physical activity. This can mean support via friends and family who encourage you from the sidelines or having workout buddies who help keep you motivated. Being habitual about working out with others, whether it’s going for a walk with a friend or going to group fitness classes, has been proven to increase the likelihood that you’ll move to that coveted maintenance phase.