How to make exercise a long-lasting habit

Leon Antonio Outar's research focuses on why we train and how to motivate ourselves to train. Here, he outlines a scientifically-proven technique you can use to make exercise into a long-lasting habit

Alongside quality sleep and good nutrition, exercise is one of the key things you can do to live to a ripe old age. We all know exercise increases flexibility and strength, and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, but working out can also protect against everything from colon cancer and osteoporosis, to anxiety and depression. It even helps improve mood and overall brain function. 

The only problem with exercise? Knowing how good it is for us doesn’t make it any easier to actually get our running shoes on, or head to the gym. On the flip-side, it’s all too easy to fall into unhealthy behaviours.

But what can you do to ensure exercise becomes a part of your routine? This is an area I’ve been researching and turns out the solution lies in habit formation. So, first things first...

What are habits?

Habits are behaviours that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues. For example, washing our hands (behaviour) after using the toilet (contextual cue), brushing our teeth (behaviour) before sleep (contextual cue), or putting on a seatbelt (behaviour) when getting into a vehicle (contextual cue). 

Habits are formed through repetition of behaviours in response to contextual cues. Once a behaviour has been associated with a contextual cue, dependence on conscious thought (motivation) is reduced. In other words, once a habit has been formed you don’t even consider if you want to do something, you just do it.

When doing something new you consciously weigh up the pros and cons. For example, we first start wearing seatbelts while in vehicles because it’s safe to do so. The act of putting on your seatbelt only develops into an unconscious habit over time, allowing you to make the automatic decision to do so without having to weigh up the pros and cons every time you get in a vehicle. 

When a behaviour is performed many times, you no longer have to weigh up the pros and cons. Exercise is no different.

How to form exercise habits

Forming new habits is easy, but only if you follow one very simple rule: don’t waste your time trying to do things you hate. 

As well as choosing a behaviour (e.g. jogging) you like the idea of doing and associating it with a contextual cue (e.g. Sunday morning), it helps to create a positive association with the behaviour.

If you’ve never jogged for any extended period of time before, for example, trying to go non-stop for 30 minutes on your first attempt is going to be tough and could leave you with aching muscles for days. That negative association with jogging will make it tougher for you to jog again.

The habit has not yet been formed, meaning you will weigh up the pros and cons when you wake up on the next Sunday morning, and with that negative association fresh in your memory propping up the cons it’s likely you’ll decide to sack it off in favour of more time in bed.

Conversely, if you make sure that first Sunday morning run is enjoyable (set a small goal to achieve, reward yourself once you’re done etc.) you’ll have positive associations with  jogging and doing it again will be relatively easy. 

Simple, right? Just so there's no room for (mis)interpretation, follow this simple four-step guide to make exercise (or any positive behaviour) habitual:

  1. Start off super easy and set achievable goals to work towards so you start building positive associations with the behaviour.

  2. Pick specific days and times (contextual cues) to exercise and stick to them. Make things achievable. Don’t decide to try and train at 6am everyday if you know you’ll never be able to drag yourself out of bed to do it.

  3. After exercise, reward yourself or simply reflect on how good it feels to have done it.

  4. Repeat for at least 10 weeks and you’ll have developed a new habit that will feel as natural and effortless as putting on a seatbelt!

Leon Antonio Outar is a trainee psychologist, PhD researcher, published author, and qualified personal trainer specialising in body image, physical activity adherence and addiction, weight-management, motivation and psychological wellbeing. Follow Leon on Twitter.