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Exercise Habits: Build Them When It’s Good

Build exercise habits when it's good so they stick when it's bad.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving I sat in my childhood bedroom. Since my move to Boston in 2017 and despite my resistance, my father has transformed it into his new office. I was getting ready to drive back to Boston and say goodbye once again.

But something inside me needed to tell him and my mother how much I missed them. I knew that if I talked about it, I would cry. So, I talked about it, and… I cried.

I missed my brother terribly as well. COVID-19 has interfered with seeing him the last two scheduled times. The first time through indirect exposure. The visit was cancelled. This time out of an abundance of caution, Thanksgiving was spent in the garage with my parents and me on the outside and my brother and his girlfriend pushed to the opposite corner.

It was good to see them, but still, we have been bordering on four months with sporadic contact. Missing family, COVID fatigue, and the prospect of finishing my Ph.D. during a pandemic with a hiring freeze on many campuses has been stressful.

I’ve been trying my best to avoid drifting towards indifference, accomplishing what needed to be accomplished but having mental energy for little else. Even writing, something I like, has fallen off.

But not exercise.

Despite feeling stressed, spread thin, and low on energy, I never miss more than one day of exercise in a row. If this was not a habitual behavior, I have no doubt that exercise would have been pushed to the wayside just like many other things. Here is why.

Habits Persist Despite Stress and Low Willpower

There are a few important characteristics of habitual behavior. Habits are developed when we repeat a behavior in the same context, often while trying to achieve a goal. Once a habit has formed, it is triggered by cues, not intentions or goals. Meaning, habitual behaviors unfold automatically when triggered by a specific context or cue.

Stress degrades our conscious, deliberative self and decision-making ability suffers. Because habits are not dependent on intentions, when people have low willpower or are feeling stressed, they tend to rely on habits.

In her book Good Habits, Bad Habits, Dr. Wendy Wood writes that “habits are safe harbors in stressful times. They aren’t affected by stress like our more conscious selves.”

How to Build Them

How do we build good habits?

A 2020 study in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that the answer is through repetition. Results from the paper by Anouk van der Weiden showed that habit strength for self-chosen, goal-congruent behaviors was strongest for participants who consistently performed the selected behaviors.

If you are looking to form a new health habit, write down what your long-term goal is. This could be something you want to consistently do (run three times per week) or it could be an outcome goal (lose 20 pounds). Within that greater goal, pick a behavior you want to start doing.

The key is to make it easy and to make sure it is connected with a goal so that consistency is guaranteed and so that the behavior is associated with something intrinsically rewarding.

Next, decide the context within which the behavior will occur. What is the trigger? You can use time, a place, and/or an immediately preceding event as the trigger to the new behavior.

For example, you may have decided that you want to break up your day with more walks. The behavior fits the criteria for being relatively easy. Next, plan what time, where you will do it, and what will you be doing before the walk. Maybe your time is 7:00 a.m., around the park, and you will use your normal stop to the coffee shop as the trigger.

To get the habit to stick, make sure you repeat the behavior in the same context over and over again. With repetition, these healthy exercise or physical activity habits will stick even when you are stressed or low on willpower.

References

van der Weiden et al. (2020). How to form good habits? A longitudinal study on the role of self-control in habit. Frontiers in Psychology. 11(560).

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