Forming healthy habits is hard and there’s a reason most of our resolutions ultimately go down in flames. We may be wired to fail. Evolution has bequeathed us a brain that optimises for survival, not for long term health planning. Natural selection primed us for detecting threats and finding food and not for flossing our teeth. The fact that we are up against this evolutionary challenge is why sticking to your intention to exercise can be so hard. Here are four tips that I’ve found can help.
First, aim to exercise most days rather than every day. Consistency counts. The more often you exercise, the easier it gets and the deeper and more enduring the benefits. But if you set the goal of exercising most days, you can miss one day without your inner critic swooping in and calling you a failure. I call this approach daily-ish. It has elasticity or psychological flexibility, a key concept from behaviour change research, which can help lead to an abiding habit, be it meditation, or an exercise routine, or a commitment to learn anything new.
Second, commit to just 30 minutes a day. This is a low bar and scalable. After 30 minutes of exercising people often think to themselves, hey, I’m already here, might as well keep going a bit. That little moment of Yes, counts for a lot.
Third, think strategically about your schedule. Some people find that having a set time every day, first thing in the morning , after office hours or before dinner ,it really helps establish a habit. Scientists who study habit formation talk about cue, routine and reward. You can experiment with constructing a cue- routine-reward loop that gets you to exercise. For example, after my morning tea, I will exercise for 30 minutes. That’s the routine. And I’ll feel a little calmer and more mindful reward. Repeat this loop to ingrain the habit. You can even put your daily session in your calendar which some people find helpful.
That being said, if like me, you have an unpredictable schedule. thinking strategically might mean trying to fit your exercise in whenever and wherever you can.
Tip number four, make yourself accountable. Some people may not institute a healthy habit on their own, but they will do it when other people are holding them accountable. One way to create that kind of accountability is to join a community of some sort. It can be as simple as just getting a few of your friends together and starting. Another option is to join a regular exercise group or exercise under a coach.
So those are four very simple tips. Exercise daily-ish, commit to just 30 minutes each time, schedule it in, and make yourself accountable. In fact, these tips are so simple. I think they teach us something worthwhile in and of themselves. We may have all sorts of high flown ideas about ourselves. But in many ways we are all like rats in a maze, constantly pressing the levers that deliver food pellets to us.
Behavior change science strongly suggests that the best way to create good habits is to identify where and how to get those pellets. Just like rats were much more or less likely to keep doing something if it feels good and we get something out of it. It’s that simple..Why make it complicated?