How long does it really take to get the exercise habit?
Sticking with something new can be notoriously difficult. Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution? Research tells us that while around 45% of the population start the new year with a resolution, only 8% actually continue long enough to achieve it, with a quarter of people not even making it past the first week!
Psychologists define a habit as learned actions that are triggered automatically when we encounter the situation in which we’ve repeatedly done those actions. For example, imagine you get home each evening after a tough day and unwind with a glass of wine. You form a link between coming home (the trigger), and having a drink (the response). Do this enough times and the link strengthens to the point where you don't even think about it any more; a habit has formed.
So why do habits exist at all? Thinking is one of the most expensive things your brain does, so a habit is a kind of mental shorthand. This makes the brain more efficient: the automation of frequent behaviours allows us to conserve the mental resources that we would otherwise use to monitor and control these behaviours, and deploy them on more difficult or novel tasks. Habits are likely to persist over time; because they're automatic and don't rely on conscious thought, memory or willpower.
According to research from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre based at UCL Epidemiology and Public Health, it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit - or for those new year resolutions, 6th March.
Here are some of their findings:
- To create a new habit you need to repeat the behaviour in the same situation. It's important that something about the setting where you perform the behaviour is consistent so that it can trigger the behaviour. For example, if you do the school run, use this as the trigger to go and workout. Do it enough times and it becomes automatic.
- Breaking old habits is very difficult. The easiest way is to control your environment so that you avoid the triggers for your habit. Also, note that new habits don't stop old ones from existing, so consistency is key.
- Falling off the wagon isn't critical. The study showed that missing one opportunity didn't significantly impact the habit formation process, but people who were very inconsistent in performing the behaviour didn't succeed in making habits.
- Forming complex new habits takes longer. The more complex a behaviour, such as exercise, the longer it will take to form a habit, so you'll need to be patient.
Looks like Woody Allen was right when he said that '80% of success is showing up'. The more times you can workout in a regular and consistent way for the first two months, it should literally be a 'no brainer' after that!
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, 998-1009.
If you want to learn more about changing your habits, check out this book from award-winning New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg.
Info from Amazon:
Charles Duhigg takes us to the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. With penetrating intelligence and an ability to distill vast amounts of information into engrossing narratives, Duhigg brings to life a whole new understanding of human nature and its potential for transformation.