Comparing the gym in January to the gym in February or March will probably give you some idea of how long it takes to make exercise a habit.
Longer than some people’s memberships do, for sure.
And yet, probably not as long as some people might think.
When you’re a beginner, it can be tough to make exercise habitual.
The brain is a complicated organ; its capacity for sabotage, phenomenal.
It’s a pattern you may already be familiar with: you get pumped for some new training regime, the BEST programme you’ve ever seen, THE diet that’s going to fix you right up, OMG this is going to change your life…and so you start and it goes really well but then suddenly, quickly, you lose interest or you skip a few sessions, you make excuses, get distracted and before you know it, it’s done and you’re done.
Willpower is a limited resource and it can be quickly depleted especially when there are demands on your time or concentration.
But there are ways of forming habits. Understanding how to do it could bring you one step closer to your making exercise a habit and helping you achieve your fitness goals for 2020 and beyond.
How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?
A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests it takes 66 days to form a habit.
It’s a good number; it’s not too high and has been backed up by research.
66 days sounds doable but how did researchers settle on it?
Study into the Time it Takes to Form a Habit Participants were asked to pick something to do that was health promoting – an activity or behaviour in response to a daily cue.
For example, some people chose to drink a glass of water each day after breakfast. Drinking water was the health promoting activity and finishing breakfast was the cue.
Going for a run immediately after work or eating 5-portions of veg with dinner might be other examples of health promoting activities with a cue.
For each day during the experiment, participants were asked about how automatic that behaviour seemed to be to them. After the study concluded, researchers found that it was an average of 66 days before an activity felt natural.
And it’s the natural or automatic element of this that’s important.
A habit is a behaviour that’s often done without any meaningful thought.
Many use the example of cleaning your teeth first thing in the morning and again before bed as something that’s done with little thought: you don’t think about it nor do you pay attention to the activity when you’re doing it.
You just do it; it’s a habit.
The same, too, is often said about fastening a seatbelt when you get into a car. There was a time when this wasn’t a legal requirement but now the vast majority of us do it without thinking.
That it takes 66 days to pick up an exercise habit and to do it until it felts automatic or natural seems entirely reasonable.
The problem is that although 66 days was the average, for some people it took far longer – up to 254 days in fact.
254 days is a lot longer than 66 days, right?
It’s easy to get discouraged by this but the important thing to remember is that habits are formed one day at a time. You just have to keep doing them. Regardless of the length of time it takes, anything, even exercise, will eventually become second nature.
And even if it is going to take you 254 days to make exercise a habit, research has now found that missing a day here and there isn’t going to do much harm. You don’t have to start over again just because of a few missed sessions. Just keep going.
What Can You Do to Make Exercising a Habit?
Keep your gym clothes ready-to-go. If you’re going running, put your kit somewhere you can see it. It’s not just about having a visual reminder; it’s about making life easier for yourself: not having to scramble around trying to find your trainers at 6 in the morning.
The more obstacles in front of you the harder it will be to create routine, and the harder something is the less likely you’ll keep doing it. Visual cues are important and so are reminders.
- You need to be consistent. Colin Robinson gives some excellent advice: the right behaviours are developed through consistency, not frequency.
What he means is that often when you try to create new routines you’ll often spend those initial sessions smashing it: the excitement of something new, of waking up early, hitting the gym, of putting 100% into your workout but then there will be a day or maybe two days where you can’t do it, maybe you’re tired or you overslept, you went on holiday or you were ill.
It can be really hard to get back into that initial groove. You miss one day and then suddenly your entire routine has gone to the wall.
Colin suggests that starting small can help built momentum towards habits. He now sets up 1 day where he has to workout – no excuses, no skipping out on it regardless of how you feel or what you’re doing. The when he’s got that down, he adds an extra day in and so on.
By the time you get to exercising three or four times a week, then it’s already a habit. You learn consistency and avoid burnout.
- Another great piece of advice from Colin is that ‘life happens in the evening, not in the morning’. Which is absolutely true. No one wants or needs you at 6am so that’s the time to get your exercise in.
You don’t have to be a morning person forever.
You don’t even have to exercise in the AM forever but you do need to do it until working out is something that’s as natural as brushing your teeth.
Make exercise fun. There are thousands of different ways to move so don’t think you have to do the one you hate.
Enjoy it and it’s easier to do regularly.
Find a class or a sport or a gym that makes you happy. One way to make exercise more enjoyable is to listen to music.
Just remember to add sweat-resistant covers to your headphones if you’re heading out with on-ear or over-ear cans.
- Keep track of the days and the progress you’re making so that you can see how far you’ve come since day 1. Set some goals, too, having something to aim for can give us a concrete reason to get out of bed or to go out when it’s cold, dark and raining.
You’re going to have to accept, too, that there will be rough days. There will be days where you absolutely suck or days where you don’t even put your trainers on. Fine. Pick it back up again tomorrow or switch to something you do feel like doing that day.
- The biggest battle is always showing up. Make it to the gym, to the first kilometre or to the track and you’re 50% there. Give yourself permission to quit earlier if you need to because more times that not, once you’re started, you won’t.
We’re all looking for a quick-fix but nothing worth doing well is ever done easily or quickly. Making exercise a habit is going to take patience, time and consistency but it’ll be worth it.
And 66 days is nothing, really.