Changing behaviour and making exercise a habit – is it as hard as it seems?

Our daily lives are filled with habits and routines – what time we wake up, what we have for breakfast, that 10am coffee… As health professionals, we are often asking our clients to change their behaviour and/or routine in some way. Walk more, sit less, stretch after work, strength training 3 times per week – you’ve probably heard it all. But how easy is it to make something a habit and more importantly, stick with it?

A man named Charles Duhigg once wrote a book about routine, and in this book, he mentioned something called the ‘habit loop’. This habit loop as you can see below consists of three elements: a cue, a routine and a reward.

Firstly, the cue for a habit can be anything that triggers the habit, the time of day, a location, other people etc. For example, when you walk into the bathroom in the morning before work, you are inclined to brush your teeth as you do every morning.

The habits routine is the most obvious element, it’s the behaviour you wish to change (e.g eating junk food or biting your nails) or reinforce (e.g drinking two litres of water or going to the gym three times per week)
The reward is the reason the brain decides that the first two steps are worth remembering for the future. The reward associates the behaviour change in the first two steps with a positive outcome (such as weight loss or a sense of achievement) making it more likely for you to produce that behaviour again in the future.

So how long does it take?

Studies show that on average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behaviour becomes automatic – 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes this new habit to form can vary widely depending on behaviour, the person and the circumstances. It is so common to get caught up in the need to make a habit of something. Then it gets to that day, the day where you’re tired, it’s cold and you hit the snooze alarm to your workout. That day then sets the precedent that ‘missing one day is okay’ so you skip another, and another.

The good news? Researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then, building better habits is not an “all or nothing process”. At the end of the day, the right behaviours are developed through consistency not frequency.

How we promote change with our clients.

In the Workers compensation system, we aim to have our clients back to pre-injury duties by week 10-12. If comparing this to the statistics above, this is over the 66-day mark and they therefore should be well on the way to making this lifestyle change a permanent one.

We meet with each of our clients at the same time and place once per week to begin with, this is not only to trigger that ‘cue’ mentioned earlier to associate a certain time and place with exercise but build confidence that the movements they are performing are done with the correct technique and form. This way, they have one day in a week where exercise is set for them.

Depending on the injury, our clients can start to see changes in mobility and pain symptoms by as early as week 2. This is where the reward or motivation comes into play, early on if they can see and trust that the exercises prescribed to them are of benefit due to their newly found routine, they will be much more likely to trust the process and motivate themselves to continue.

Towards the end of the work conditioning program we will look to see our clients fortnightly for the last month. This is not only so that we do not over treat, but also to establish whether they are able to self-manage their exercise program and attend the gym independently going forward, even after the supervised sessions have ceased.

At the end of the day, how long it takes to form a habit doesn’t matter much. Whether it takes you 40 days or 300 days you must have the motivation and drive to put in the work. The only way to get to the gym or go for that walk on day 300 is to start at day 1. Make sure you ask plenty of questions of your Exercise Physiologist, understand the importance of exercise in your situation and you can and will, change your life for the better. Small changes in habits can lead to unremarkable results.

Remember… “a river cuts through rock not because of its strength, but its persistence” – James N Watkins

Channai Graham (B.Sc-Ex.Sp.Sci,Post.Grad.Dip.(Clin.Ex.Phys))
Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) (AES) (ESSAM)

Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674