How to make exercise an everyday habit
You’re not lazy — it’s all because of the “intention–behavior gap”!
Remember your last New Year’s resolution. You committed to making exercise a habit and started enthusiastically. But soon your motivation faded and you found yourself back to square zero — less physically active than you promised yourself you’d be.
Is that because you’re lazy? Well, no. Researchers who study behavior psychology have a special term for that phenomenon — “intention-behavior gap”. It’s the discrepancy between our intentions and our actual behavior.
5 reasons behind the intention-behavior gap
Reason # 1. Your brain has “decided” that the new exercise routine is too difficult
We are “wired” to avoid activities that are painful and require a lot of energy. That is a survival mechanism humans have developed through evolution.
If you have never really exercised and now you’ve decided to start your day with a 3-minute plank, 50 squats, and 40 push-ups — that regime is not going to last.
Solution: If you want your exercise habit to stick, start with baby steps. We tend to hesitate starting a new activity if it looks too difficult, since fear of failure is a powerful source of procrastination.
So, to make exercise an everyday habit, the new exercise routine a) should feel effortless and b) should take 20–30 seconds to perform at maximum.
“But 3 push-ups a day won’t make me fit and healthy!” That’s true, but baby steps are only needed in the beginning. You will slowly but surely increase the duration and/or intensity later.
Join the Weekly Exercising Challenge to define your optimal loading for a chosen exercise routine.
Reason #2. You didn’t find an optimal slot in your day to fit in the exercise routine
You decided to start exercising but didn’t define WHEN EXACTLY that was going to happen. The day has passed, and only late in the evening you remember that you wanted to exercise today. And now you’re too tired . . .
Or, maybe, you decided you would exercise first thing in the morning. But the next day you overslept and were in a rush, so exercising got de-prioritized. Again. Sound familiar?
Unfortunately, changing habits doesn’t happen simply when we decide to improve our lifestyle. It requires observation, analysis, and smart planning.
Solution: Instead of trying to become a completely new person as of tomorrow, a better strategy would be to place a new exercise habit in different parts of your existing daily routine. And then observe where it fits best.
For some people the optimal time slot is early morning. For others it may be before lunch, in the evening, or whenever the baby is sleeping. The only way to discover what works for you is to experiment and analyze.
Join the Weekly Exercising Challenge to discover the optimal time slot for an exercise routine in YOUR life. There are still a few places left.
Reason #3. You rely on your motivation instead of building a habit
Motivation is overrated. The sooner you accept this fact, the faster you will be able to improve your lifestyle.
Don’t get me wrong, motivation is important to start exercising. However, to follow through consistently you need to make exercise an everyday habit, an “autopilot” behavior that happens regardless of your mood and motivation.
It’s like brushing your teeth. You don’t talk yourself into brushing your teeth. No, you simply find yourself in the morning in front of your sink already doing it! You need to achieve the same automatism with your exercise routines.
There’re online courses that will teach you how to create new habits based on the current research in neuroscience and psychology. Going through such training would be one of the most efficient ways to achieve lasting lifestyle improvement.
Alternatively, you can try to make exercise an everyday habit yourself, following the basic principles of associative learning:
- Define a trigger for your new habit. Your existing habits and physiological needs can serve as great triggers. For example, brushing your teeth in the morning can be a good trigger for exercising.
- Do the desired behavior (the exercise routine you want to make a habit) right after that trigger. It’s crucial that the trigger remain the same every day!
- Reward yourself immediately afterwards. That will help to make a link in your brain between your new habit and a reward, giving your brain an incentive to repeat that behavior again and again “on autopilot.” The reward can be as simple as saying, “Well done, you!” or taking a nice warm shower or drinking a cup of tea. The best case is when your exercise routine is pleasurable in itself without the need for a reward.
- Repeat that sequence until not doing it feels abnormal. Recent research says that it takes 66 days on average to create a habit (forget the “21-day rule”; it’s a myth). So be patient.
Reason #4. Your social environment works against your exercise goals instead of supporting them
Our social environment can be a very powerful tool if used properly. And the opposite is also true — if your family and friends are not on board, it may be harder for you to follow through on your resolutions.
For example, a recent study (Silva et al., 2011) showed that dieters in a supportive social environment achieved better weight loss results than those whose social environment was less encouraging.
Solution: Here are the 5 typical roles that people in your environment can play to help you progress with your fitness goals.
Role Model, Partner in Crime, Competitor, Supporter, Resource Provider. Make sure you have at least of one of each kind in your closest social environment.
The role model helps to boost your motivation. That person serves as a projection of your future: I will be as healthy, as fit, as successful as her or him. The role model helps you to imagine your future and be inspired.
The partner in crime is a person who shares your exercise goals and agrees to take action together with you to achieve them. For example, you meet every morning for a run. This type of support is helpful in many ways. It can give you emotional support when you lose hope and motivation. It creates a commitment, keeping you accountable. And finally, in many cases it’s often more fun to do things together.
The competitor. Some people like to compete; they enjoy an opportunity to win and see competition as a way to improve their performance or get extra motivation. The competitor in your environment who is also into exercising will keep you on your toes.
The supporter. Many psychologists agree that two things are important for effective emotional support. First, “unconditional positive regard” and, second, re-framing failures as steps towards success.
“Unconditional positive regard” means that your supporter supports you not because she or he thinks that you are doing the right thing (say, they appreciate that you’ve decided to lose weight). No. They support you simply because they care for you and trust you regardless of what you are trying to achieve and how. And if you choose to achieve your goals differently, they will still support you.
The second sign of a “true supporter” is that they will help you to see your failures as natural steps toward success. (McSpadden K. et al., 2016). They will help you to see that you have all that is needed to achieve your goal and that you’re progressing. (Ryan, Deci, 2000) And if you get stuck, it’s just a bump in the road and you will get past it.
The resource provider. This is a person who can give you advice, feedback, money, introduce you to her or his network, help you with doing something.
Some of those roles may be more or less effective for you. It’s about what works the best for you personally.
Participate in the Weekly Exercising Challenge to get the social support you need to kick off the new habit. There are still a few places left.
Reason #5. You set yourself scary lifetime exercise goals
If you promised yourself to work out every day until the day you die with no exceptions — that would sound really scary. Not to say unrealistic. Again: if our brain believes something is difficult, it will give us all the good reasons to procrastinate.
Solution: Start with a one-week commitment. One week sounds much more realistic than until the end of your life, right? In fact, committing to something that seems pretty easy will boost your motivation and self-confidence.
After you are able to stick to your weekly commitment you will likely attain a “success momentum”: feeling that you are not a failure, that you are able to follow through. That will re-energize you and help you to keep going.
Participate in the Weekly Exercising Challenge to kick off the new habit. The next Challenge starts on Monday.
If you’re ready to implement those recommendations, consider participating in the upcoming Weekly Exercising Challenge. It starts next Monday, 21st of May 2018. And good luck with making exercising your second nature!
Here’s a short video explaining what the “Weekly Exercising Challenge” is and how it helps to build habits:
To participate in the Challenge starting next Monday, May 21st, fill in the short form below:
You may subscribe to HabitLab Telegram channel here
Sources mentioned in the article
Rhodes, R.E., de Bruijn, G.J. (2013). How big is the physical activity intention–behaviour gap? A meta-analysis using the action control framework. Br J Health Psychol. 296–309.
Godin G., Conner M. (2008). Intention-behavior relationship based on epidemiologic indices. An application to physical activity. American Journal of Health Promotion, 22(3). 180-2.
Silva, M. N., Markland, D., Carraca, E. V., Vieira, P. N., Coutinho, S. R., Minderico, C. S., et al. (2011). Exercise autonomous motivation predicts 3-yr weight loss in women. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 43, 728-737.
Franken, R. E., Brown, D. J. (1995). Why do people like competition? The motivation for winning, putting forth effort, improving one’s performance, performing well, being instrumental, and expressing forceful/aggressive behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, Vol.19(2). 175-184.
McSpadden, K. E., Patrick, H., Oh, A. Y., Yaroch, A. L., Dwyer, L. A. & Nebeling, L. C. (2016). The association between motivation and fruit and vegetable intake. The moderating role of social support. Appetite, Vol.96, 87-94.
Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed. Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.