Here at Zenith Humans, we are all for putting into place behaviours and thoughts that can assist us to create a health orientated lifestyle that is both short term and long term focused. A big part of this is making exercise a habit.
Our habits are what create the life that we lead. The way that we think, feel, and act are a result of our habits.
So what exactly is a habit?
A habit is a sequence of learned behaviours and thinking patterns that have been repeated in response to a cue that helps us achieve an outcome or goal.
So, for example, when we were kids we learned how to brush our teeth, our sequence of behaviours was something like this:
- selecting the right toothbrush from the holder,
- uncapping the toothpaste,
- squeezing just the right amount of paste onto the brush,
- re-capping the toothpaste,
- holding the brush so the paste did not fall off,
- turning the tap on,
- wetting the brush,
- turning the tap back off,
- navigating the brush into your mouth,
- manoeuvring the brush around your mouth,
- spitting out the paste,
- turning the tap back on,
- washing your mouth out,
- washing your brush,
- turning the tap back off, and
- putting the brush back in its holder
This was repeated at least twice a day over and over again.
The cues may have initially been mum or dad telling us to brush our teeth or seeing a picture of the toothbrush on a sticker chart or seeing the toothbrush on the vanity. We may have been rewarded for brushing our teeth by our parents by getting a small amount of pocket money, stickers, praise, or the reward could have just been that mum stops nagging you to brush your teeth. Something simple such as brushing our teeth was actually pretty complex when we were learning it. But we did it. And now brushing our teeth has become so automated that we just do it. We don’t even really stop and think about the cue – we don’t even stop and think about what we are really doing or if we are doing it right. It’s a habit, and it’s become part of our day. We would rarely, if ever, forget to brush our teeth.
Did we want to?
In all of this, we have not even considered if we wanted to brush our teeth, if we were motivated to have clean teeth, how we felt about brushing our teeth, or if we were happy after our teeth were cleaned. We just did it. And eventually it became automated. And now we just brush our teeth. We don’t put a whole lot of thought into it. Plus, while we are doing it, we have the capacity to think about a host of other things while going through the motions of teeth brushing – this is due to automaticity.
The outcome or goal short term was having clean teeth (or stopping mum from nagging you), and the long term goal (that your parents set and you continue) is oral health.
Just as brushing your teeth is a habit, so is eating chocolate when stressed or sad is a habit, practising self-compassion is a habit, and checking your mirrors before reversing is a habit.
So how exactly are habits formed? Habit formation is a process of repeating behaviours or thoughts until they have become automatic. This means repeatedly doing something or repeatedly thinking in a certain way until it becomes automated.
Think about or write down some habits you want to start to put into place. It may help to also think of the cue as well as goals or outcomes.
(or reasons or goals)
e.g. realistic evaluation of body
e.g. word realistic written on post it note on mirror
e.g. healthy body image and self-esteem
e.g. attending 5am fitness class
e.g. joggers and clothes on dresser underneath alarm
e.g. increase strength, lift heaver when doing squats, decrease risk of hurting self during fall when older
So, if we think about this in terms of exercise, we can start to see that we can’t actually make exercise itself a habit. To start with, habits are learning behaviours in a sequence – whereas exercise will encompass a variety of behaviours not typically performed in a repeated pattern over and over again. Exercise is a label we give to various behaviours; it’s not actually a behaviour in itself. So, there isn’t really a sequence we can put into place. So, we need to shift away from thinking that exercise itself can become automatic. This expectation is setting us up for failure.
sequence of behaviours
What we can do is make behaviours around the concept of exercise a habit. For example, we may have a goal of participating in group fitness classes. And we decide we want to go to class 3 x per week. So, to do this, we need to get to the place where the classes are being held. So, we can put together a sequence of behaviours in order to achieve this goal. For example, alarm goes off, we dress, brush teeth, make and drink coffee, pack gym bag, drive/ catch bus to location etc. We already know how to do all of these- we know how to drink coffee, dress ourselves, drive the car, park, etc. And we know we have the capacity of putting them together in the correct ordered sequence.
For this sequence to work we need to put in some prep work or effort. For example, the night before the fitness class we need to set our alarm so we can wake up on time. We need to calculate how much time we need to get ready – we don’t want to over estimate otherwise we loose sleep and we cannot under estimate otherwise we are rushed and late. So, we can draw from prior experiences and knowledge about calculating time we need to prepare ourselves and get to class. We also need clothes to wear, so we need to have them washed, dried, and ready for the morning. All the prep works needs to be done on time ready for certain mornings. And we can do all of this. We as adults have the behavioural and cognitive capacity for all of this. We know we can actually get to the group class.
So what’s the actual problem? Why do so many people fail at “making exercise a habit” or more correctly “getting to group class”. The problem is with our emotions, expectations, and motivation. A lot of us think we are going to leap out of bed feeling refreshed and pumped, ready for working out. We want to feel like working out. We want the motivation; that hell yeah moment. This expectation sets us up for failure. At 4am when your alarm disrupts your sleep it is unlikely that you will want to get out of bed. You won’t feel like it. You won’t feel like exercising. Then the excuses begin and bargaining occurs. I’ll do it tomorrow, I’ll go to bed earlier, I’ll go tonight, I don’t really need to exercise, I’ll just eat less etc etc.
Or you might have the expectation that motivation alone will carry you through day after day. You might wake up one morning and feel inspired, happy, excited to take part in the group fitness class and you will actually do it. Your goal that day is achieved. This is on Monday. On Wednesday morning however you will wake up and realise it’s raining – perfect sleep in weather. Oh and your jumper – well you didn’t wash that so now you don’t have one and you will be cold if you get out of bed. Again, chorus of excuses.
Or maybe you achieve your goal for the entire first week, or two. 3 x per week you get to the studio on time and take part in the class. Well done! But on week 3 you are tired. You have a presentation due, or mounting work, so you skip Monday with a rein of excuses pouring in. At the same time you congratulate yourself for two weeks of effort; this lessens emotions such as guilt of not going and disappointment of letting yourself and others down.
So, then you fall out of routine and it becomes challenging to put all this back in place. You may go on the merry go round of this time after time again. The problem we can see is around the expectations, motivation, and emotions. We can also see that our short time frame was enough for a routine but not enough to create a habit.
It’s also important to note that it takes time and effort. Many people do not achieve health and fitness outcomes or goals due to unrealistic thinking styles around the amount of time or degree of effort. This can lead to making excuses and or feeling overwhelmed, de-motivated, deflated, and so forth. Mainly this is a result of commercialisation and emotion based marketing.
Write down or think about any expectations or emotionally driven marketing traps that do or could play a part in hindering you forming health based habits.
Now think about or write down your health and fitness goals or desired outcomes. Consider: Are they realistic? Are they achievable? What time frame do you have around achieving them? If they are vague or conceptual (e.g. lose weight, get fit, be healthy) how exactly will this be achieved? How will you know that they have been achieved?
The root of forming exercise related habits, or any habits for that matter is automaticity. That is habits fundamentally are behaviours we do on auto pilot or semi autopilot. The foundation for this is the neurological structure of our brains. If we do not have the basis for a sequence of behaviours than it cannot become a habit. So, it’s as simple and complex as changing the hardwiring of our brains…