The Key to Exercise Behavior Change Is Identity Change

Don't change your behavior without considering changing your identity.

Posted Nov 02, 2020

In the early 2000s, I was writing a sequel to Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park. My latest novel was composed in a black and white notebook. I was 12 years old.

This wasn’t commissioned work, Michael Crichton did not contact my agent (since I didn’t have one), desperately begging a 12-year-old, to ghostwrite his next book. The story can’t have been all that good, but I liked writing it.

I kept going back to that composition book whenever inspiration hit. I enjoyed writing about what I liked. I was 12, I liked dinosaurs. Whether I knew it, I was already cultivating an identity as a writer. My writing persisted not just because I liked it, but because it is a part of who I am.

How can we apply this concept to exercise?

Identity: What Does an 80-Year-Old Runner have in Common with Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Before I moved to Boston I lived and worked in Cortland New York. Cortland is a college town. You see the same faces in the same places. Each week I would see an older woman jogging down the road.

Two years later, I am back in Utica, New York to run a 15K. Who do I see running along the course? The same woman! Not only is she still running, but running uphill 15Ks. Why does she do it? Why do so many people try to pick up exercise only to stop?

This woman ran because she is a runner and runners run. Running is integrated into her identity. It was part of who she was and that is why she is doing it. To me, incorporating exercise into your identity is the only surefire way to persist.

In 2019, CNBC ran a story on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wellness routine. According to the article, Arnold started lifting when he was 15 years old. At 72 he still works out every day at 7 a.m. My runner and Arnold have something in common. They both have their habits and routines wrapped around something they care about, something that has been integrated into their identity.

How Do You Describe Yourself?

What are the labels you put on yourself? You might start out with: “I am the kind of person that…”

Was exercise on that list?

If you see yourself as someone who is physically active, you will be on the lookout to behave in ways that are congruent with your identity. You will build habits around the way you see yourself and feel discomfort with behaviors that are not congruent with your identity.

Identity drives behaviors and behaviors give evidence to identity.

Identity is an abstraction. Behaviors, which are concrete, are the only thing that can give strength and truth to these words. For example, if you see yourself as a sedentary person, your behaviors can give that identity truth. Because behaviors form identity, behaviors can also change identity.

If you have desired to change your physical activity or exercise habits in the past only to come up short, there is a reason for this. Did you ever think past the concreteness of going to the gym or going for a run or did that behavior hold any symbolic meaning for you?

Author James Clear writes that you should decide who you want to be (the abstract) and prove it with small wins (the concrete). Planting one flower here and there does not make a garden—just as exercising once and a while does not build an identity. Planting flowers every day will certainly make a lovely garden.

Consider the following to help you think about why exercise is important to you. Imagine you have been exercising consistently for a year. What is that person like? Every time you exercise—each time you do not miss a planned routine—you are getting closer to becoming that person. Monitor your behavior, learn from setbacks, focus on becoming, and persist.