According to a new study, routine is the key to starting a new habit. Iowa State University professors say that exercise is better accomplished by focusing on cues that make going for a run or heading to the gym automatic.
A study published in the journal Health Psychology by Alison Phillips, an assistant professor of psychology, says that the thing you use to instigate the habit is what increases frequency.
“From a health perspective, we want people to engage in physical activity frequently, and so instigation habit is the type of habit to promote that to happen,” Phillips said. “Regardless of the type of exercise you’re going to do on a particular day, if you have an instigation habit, you’ll start exercising without having to think a lot about it or consider the pros and cons.”
Phillips explains that like this: that people who exercise after work know they are going to drive to the gym instead of driving home. Others use the alarm clock to signal that it’s time to run. The key is to repeat this structure for a month or longer in order for the “cue” to act reliably and trigger the desired behavior. If the cue occurs at the same time of day, it will become more automatic.
External cues, like clocks ringing or time-driven reminders are common. But what might work better, is a feeling that you should move after sitting at a desk for hours—that may form the strongest habit—although it’s harder to train in people and needs to develop over time.
…if you have an instigation habit, you’ll start exercising without having to think a lot about it or consider the pros and cons.
A study was done to explore the importance of different habit components in predicting exercise frequency. Healthy adults (118 people, with 25% obese) kept a note of exercise instigation, habit strength, and tracked their exercise amounts over a month. Overall, 5% reported not exercising and 50% said they exercised regularly longer than 12 months.
The trick for the longevity of exercise habit may be following the same routine, but different types of exercise, which builds self-confidence and being active in general is key. But it still does not work for everyone.
“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,” Phillips said. “It might be important for people just starting out to do the same thing until they realize they can do this, but in the long-term there does not seem to be a benefit of doing the same things over and over again.”
Perhaps the “just do it” iconic logo can also be a trigger, but researchers want more time to figure out what works best. Point is, don’t get saddled by the same boring exercise, but do something when you feel you need it—and hopefully, make it routine and frequent.