The worst habit we all seem to have is we do not have it at all: a regular exercise habit.
We know how much this one habit can make us healthy in mind and body, even so we find it the hardest to build an exercise habit that lasts.
To be clear, by exercise, we mean planned, structured, repetitive, and purposeful physical activity. So you do not present your case of counting sparrows while sitting on a park bench as exercise.
There are 5 specific steps you can use to develop any habit, not just exercise.
5 Key Strategies To Build A Habit
A habit does not happen overnight, or even over a week. It takes around 6 to 10 weeks.
The idea is to make yourself habituated to the new routine. It is to get yourself to break the resistance to a new habit.
This is actually not creating a habit. It is developing a habit bit by bit, because if it comes easy, then it goes easy.
Here are 5 habit-keys to develop a sticky routine:
1. Set Off The X Effect
Let’s unwrap the intrigue around the X Effect Method of Completing Goals. Here’s a Reddit thread to catch the discussion on it.
It essentially says you draw a 7x7 grid of 49 squares on a card, label it for a new habit, and keep putting a red X on each square for each day you complete it.
An easier version is to take a calendar, mark the completed dates with an X, and put a circle around those dates you missed doing the habit.
Now what this does is create a mild tension in your mind to not let that chain break. Any time you see a circle, it makes you visibly aware you have missed that date with your habit.
This makes you more determined to keep the chain of X’s intact the next day after an O.
That’s it—draw X marks (or O marks) on a calendar date. A little trick is to fill in some intentional breaks, like weekends, in your calendar. Blacken out the weekend dates at the start.
You could target something as easy as a 7-minute workout routine.
And now, let’s go deeper.
2. Find A Strong Cue
Research suggests most regular exercisers have a built-in specific mechanism to make them work out daily. Their exercise habit gets triggered by a particular cue.
If we plug into our favorite workout music the first thing on getting up in the morning, this would make us leave the house to go to the park or the gym without any great deal of thought.
Or if your dog was trained (the Pavlovian way) to get ecstatic and pull you out of the house because it is 7:30 am, then that’s a fine cue to go take a walk.
Dr. Alison Phillips, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, and her team call this an “instigation habit.”
“This study shows that you don’t have to be afraid of trying new things. You can have an instigation habit and try new types of exercise without worrying about losing the habit,” says Alison Phillips.
For people who already have cues to exercise, details are not something they spend too much of their time on. They do not deliberate on the upsides of exercising on a gloomy day.
Rather, because of the cue, it is like a pre-programmed decision that sets off instantaneously.
The stronger the instigation or cue, the greater the chances you will get back to your workout day after day.
Researchers found the sole factor that accurately hinted how good you are going to be at exercising regularly over the long term was how strong your instigation habit was.
3. Start Micro-Habits
Focus on one small piece of the entire act. Take one bite of the whole pie.
Start with a bite-sized goal. It works like this. If you have the ultimate goal of half-hour sprints a day, you begin by going to the park and spending barely 5 minutes taking a walk. That’s all.
Now, if 5 minutes seem too long, make it a 2-minute walk in the park. Begin there.
Keep doing those 2-minute walks every day till you get convinced it would not hurt too much to increase it to 3 minutes.
Make it so much of a mini-workout (or even a micro-workout), so you can’t wimp out.
Remember, building the exercise habit is never an all-or-nothing process.
Martin Gibala, a kinesiologist at McMaster University, devised a micro-workout with three 20-second rounds of an exhausting exercise routine, with intermittent 3-minute recoveries (called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT), against the typical 50-minutes-at-a-time approach, to compare the health benefits.
Both the workout routines produced similar results in improving heart function and blood-sugar levels.
“If you’re willing and able to push hard, you can get away with surprisingly little exercise,” Gibala said.
According to muscle physiology researcher Dr. Keith Baar, HIIT should be done early in the day, followed by a recovery period of at least 3 hours.
There’s another way of looking at it. We call it adaptation. Adaptation is the evolutionary process by which a living thing becomes better able to live in its habitat.
4. Watch Your Routine
Do you have a morning routine? It begins from there. Start by tracking your morning routine. Watch out if there are any unhelpful or time-wasting habits built into your mornings?
Be warned: Once you realize you spend 25 minutes every morning wading knee-deep through the freshwater stream of social media, you might end up feeling it has not been quite as life changing as you thought.
Why have you been doing this useless thing for so many years?
See the pattern up close. Once you spot the nasty habit, it will be easier to pull out the wiggly worm and put it away.
But really, developing a habit is more than breaking a useless or harmful habit. The best way to break it is to replace it with a good one over time.
Trying to break an awful habit is ultimately self-defeating labor if you are not ready with a replacement habit. It gets you circling back to the same negative habit.
Charles Duhigg, the author of Smarter, Faster, Better, suggests we must replace our bad habits with good ones through repetitive actions.
The mini-changes over days lead to big rewards in personal and professional life.
Why morning, you may ask?
Because mornings are the best times to stay on track with an exercise regime for city-bred guys like us. The tasks demanding your attention drain your energy faster than you know.
Once our white-collared workday begins, it is mayhem.
Exercising in the mornings is like training for the fight before the show begins. Your willpower is much stronger in the morning than anytime later in the day.
Find out how you can increase your willpower with these proven methods.
5. Begin A Ritual
Begin a ritual instead of trying to focus on forming a habit. Habits do not work; rituals do.
Habits are spontaneous behaviors. All habits begin with a decision and ultimately become automatic behavior.
Rituals are the opposite of habits. A ritual requires intention, attention, and engagement. It is never automatic.
Thanh Pham, Founder and Managing Director of Asian Efficiency, explains why rituals fare better than habits.
Pham offers an elegant definition of a ritual: ultra-specific step-by-step instructions that are easily repeatable and help you get a specific outcome.
Charles Duhigg writes on Quora, “Rituals, by contrast, are almost always patterns developed by an external source, and adopted for reasons that might have nothing to do with decision making.”
Simplified, when you do an activity with awareness and mindfulness, you’re carrying out a ritual. As you approach your exercise with a ritualistic intent, it becomes a habit in time. So, set your mind to start with a ritual.
Let’s explore this with an example.
You wake up, get out of your bed, and consciously put on your running shoes instead of slippers. That’s the first step. Now, tell yourself you can’t take those shoes off until you’ve walked around the block for the day.
If you do this ritual for enough days, it becomes a habit. Remember, sleeping a full 8-hour-night is essential for our best performance in almost everything.Start a ritual. A ritual requires intention, attention, and engagement. It's never automatic and succeeds better than a new habit. Click To Tweet
We are slaves of our habits.
If these habits are good, we have a fulfilling life. If there are some unwanted habits that have crept into our routines, clench your teeth and tell yourself you’ll start changing them for better ones this day on.
Finally, if we do not develop good habits while we can, then our bad habits will devolve our willpower to an automatic unhealthy lifestyle loop.
Since on habits, catch these 5 Happiness Habits.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, chief editor of its blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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