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Exercise and the Power of Habit

Many of the decisions that we make on a daily basis are performed out of habit, not as the result of a conscious decision. The route that we take to the office or school each day for example, is a habit, not a decision. And the meals that we eat throughout the day often turn into habits that are hard to break. In the same way, our workout routines are habits.

For anyone thinking about starting and maintaining a new workout program, that’s actually an extraordinarily powerful insight. It means that working out each day can become a routine habit — something that we don’t even think about consciously, it’s so ingrained into our lives.

For example, think about all the people who have ever told you, “Oh, I don’t even have 30 free minutes in my day to work out, how can I start a new exercise program?” The answer is simple: change your habits. For some people, that means waking up 30 minutes earlier in the morning to squeeze in a quick workout before the day starts. For other people, it means changing an existing less productive habit to fit in your new workout habit. Instead of spending hours on social media after dinner for example, you might decide to go to the gym instead. Going to the gym becomes your new “habit.”

But let’s back up for a second. Saying that exercise can become a habit oversimplifies matters somewhat. There’s one other important component that’s needed to create a habit, and that’s willpower. The combination of habit and willpower can be very POWERFUL. You may set your alarm for 5:00 am each night before bed, but you’ll need willpower to avoid hitting the “snooze” button in the morning.

habit-loopIn 2012, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg published a bestselling book called “The Power of Habit,” in which he outlined the various ways that people can set out to create positive habits to replace negative habits. What he found is that every habit was actually a “habit loop” – a positive feedback loop of cue, routine and reward.

Think of the cue as the “trigger” that tells your mind which habit to use, and the reward as the specific result that conditions you to keep using that habit again and again. Over time, your mind will associate the reward directly with the cue and will begin to crave that reward. That’s how people get into the habit of over-eating, for example. The “cue” (the rumbling noise of your stomach) results in a craving for sweets or fatty foods. The reward of tasty food makes it hard to stop this habit. However you can also flip the equation and find reward in eating nutritious food that gives you more energy and allows your brain to stay more focused.

You can use that same type of thinking to help design an exercise program that works. Often it becomes easier to develop a habit if you involve someone else in the decision to start exercising. For example, if you have a personal trainer or group training session to go to, that makes it harder to hit that “snooze” button on your alarm – you won’t just be letting yourself down, you’ll be letting down your others as well. It also helps if you think about WHY you wanted to start the exercise program to begin with, maybe it was so you have more energy to run around with the kids or so you can feel more confident when you look in the mirror. Achieving the desired outcome will be your reward.

So if you’re looking for a way to start a new exercise program – or to stay committed to one that you’ve recently started – start thinking of the power of habit. Exercise is a habit, and one that can prepare you for a lifetime of future wellness.