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Can’t stick to a fitness routine? “Automaticity” could help you to get (and stay) active

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Experts are dubbing ‘automaticity’ the key to keeping up an exercise routine — here’s what that means. 

There are some people who just seem to manage an active lifestyle without a second thought. They never snooze their alarm when it goes off for their morning workout, they don’t even glimpse the lift as they start walking up the stairs and they love the thrill of running faster.

Now, researchers have found what makes these people so motivated for movement – and they’ve dubbed it ‘automaticity’. It’s the idea that people who maintain active habits do so automatically, without a second thought – like brushing your teeth or saying please and thank you.

In research by Les Mills, scientists found automaticity was the key difference between those who regularly exercise and those who don’t. In fact, 100% of active people strongly agreed that exercise is simply an automatic aspect of their lives, whereas 92% of inactive people said it isn’t.

That ricochets through the rest of their life – 77% of the active group of people feel more satisfied with their career, relationships, quality of life, financial prospects, and self-esteem. However, 62% of inactive people feel as though they lack control in their daily life, feeling nervous, stressed, angry or upset.

“Most people understand that exercise is good for them and a cornerstone of good health, but far fewer are able to put this into practice and lead a consistently active lifestyle,” says co-author of the study Dr Jinger Gottschall from the University of Colorado. “Our research finds that automaticity represents the key to long-term exercise adherence and is a key differentiator between active and inactive people.”

So how do they do it? That’s what the study asked, and there is some interesting insight into how active people made movement automatic.  

Friends sat on yoga mats
Exercising with friends can make working out feel automatic

Do the right thing

92% of the active group said they always experience positive feelings from exercise, such as enjoyment, feeling energised and accomplished. That’s compared to just 23% of the inactive group. 68% of those who struggle to automatise exercise also reported a lack of interest in exercise, and 49% said they feel self-conscious when they do it.

Is it any surprise that they don’t stick to it when think it’s going to be miserable or that exercise isn’t for them? Changing that mindset is the first way to stop second-guessing the decision to go for a run or to head to the gym, says another co-author of the research Bryce Hastings from Les Mills.

“There are substantial differences between how these groups perceive physical activity and the effect it has on them,” he says. “For people looking to start exercising more regularly, seeking workouts that allow for autonomy and independence with respect to challenge and complexity will provide the necessary flexibility to find your level and continually progress.” 

In short, don’t dive into the deep end with a sport you hate, then throw the towel in when you don’t feel that sense of accomplishment. Instead, start with simple things that make you feel good about your movement and you’ll start reaping benefits that make you want to go back.

Schedule it

Do you brush your teeth in the morning because you’re worried about tooth decay or do you just do it because it’s an ingrained part of your routine? I bet it’s the latter, and the same goes for movement. Sure, exercise is packed with benefits – but thinking about your risk of osteoporosis when you’re 70 isn’t going to get you out of bed for a 7am run.

That’s why making exercise a non-negotiable part of your schedule is essential to automaticity. In the study, 77% of the active group scheduled specific times for exercising, and 84% planned ways to ensure they exercise regardless of conditions. 

Fitting it in like an appointment makes it harder to de-prioritise. As does having the necessary things in order to stop you from cancelling – whether that’s a waterproof backpack so you can cycle home in any weather or telling your boss you’ll be uncontactable on Tuesday lunchtimes so you don’t get lumped with work to do before your yoga class.

Find social support

51% of the inactive group said they lacked social support for their exercise routine. And of course it’s going to be hard to maintain a workout schedule if you have friends who are always encouraging you to swap your evening spin class for a wine at the pub.

That doesn’t mean you’ve got to ditch all your friends to start working out more – but you might want to have some serious conversations about the fact that you need support, not a distraction.

But most importantly, knowing that socialising and exercise don’t have to be mutually exclusive can help with automaticity.

“Adding social elements to your sessions by training with a friend is another great way to reinforce the habit,” says Hastings, as the study found that 84% of the active group said they were motivated by this aspect of exercise. They saw their workout as a source of entertainment, fun and a means to see friends, and it makes sense: you’re less likely to second guess the workout if you know your mates will be there to gossip or cheer you on. 

Images: Pexels 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).