To ensure we maintain our new fitness goals in the long run, it’s good habits – not willpower or motivation – that we need to prioritise. Here are science-backed tips for creating a long-lasting habit.
When it comes to setting fitness goals – to run a particular distance, lift a heavier weight or master a particular yoga pose – the predominant narrative is that willpower and hard work are the most important tools in our arsenal. The reality though, is that once our motivation fades (as it inevitably will, especially in the middle of a winter lockdown), we need habits to help us reach our goals.
Habits are behaviours that we repeat enough times in a particular context that they become automatic. Studies have found that about 40% of our daily activities are not conscious actions, but ingrained habits – meaning that making small, positive behaviour changes has the power to transform our lives.
Because habits are unconscious and don’t require decision making, they free up our mental energy (so we can use it elsewhere) and don’t drain our willpower, “meaning that we’re engaging in behaviours that support our goals without needing to think about them,” says Stephanie Harrison, an expert in positive psychology and behaviour change and the founder and CEO of The New Happy.
Here are seven ways you can train your body and mind to develop a sustainable and lasting fitness habit.
Define your long-term goal
Start off by identifying your specific fitness goal – having a well-defined, specific, and challenging-yet-achievable target has been found to be essential to success.
Use the acronym SMART to make your goal specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound. For example, rather than, “I’m going to take up running,” instead opt for, “I want to run 5k by summer and I’m going to do this by running three times a week using the Couch to 5k app.”
Moreover, focus on “dos” rather than “don’ts”, suggests chartered sport and exercise psychologist Dr Josephine Perry. “Make it a positive habit: ‘I will do something’, not a fixing one such as ‘I won’t do something’. It’s much harder to feel in control of ‘not’ doing something.” Another example might be pledging to practice yoga poses while watching TV, rather than promising to stop vegging out in front of the television.
Many of us have an all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to our goals. Rather than striving to walk for an hour each day, plus do daily yoga in addition to resistance training, you’re more likely to stick to a habit if you pick one thing to focus on.
“Choose the one that’s most important to you and break it down to the smallest possible version of it,” Harrison recommends. “Let’s say that you choose a morning walk – start by walking to the end of your street and back.” Once this becomes a habit, you can gradually increase your exercise frequency and intensity (if that’s your goal).
When we feel that we’re succeeding at something, it seems less daunting to make the behaviour bigger (such as increasing the number of reps or the length of running distance) or to introduce an additional habit into your routine.
Stack your habits
To form a habit, a behaviour needs to be repeated consistently over time until it becomes instinctive. Whatever fitness habit you’re trying to form, think about how you can make it a regular part of your routine.
“One of the best ways to introduce a new behaviour is for it to follow a different behaviour or be linked to a specific point in time,” says Dr Charlotte Chandler, senior lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Derby.
Author of Atomic Habits James Clear, refers to this as ‘habit stacking’. In other words, telling yourself, “after [current habit] I will [new habit]”.
“For example, when you finish work for the day and turn your computer off, that may be your behavioural cue to exercise, which allows you to fit this in prior to eating dinner, which is your time cue,” Dr Chandler explains. But make sure the routine isn’t too strict – if you’ve set yourself a target of exercising five days a week, these don’t need to be the same five days, for instance. Small deviations are unlikely to have a negative impact, so don’t worry if you can’t stick to the behaviour every single time, she adds.
Alter your environment
Our environment has a huge impact on our behaviour, so alter your living situation to create a path of least resistance. Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California, calls this minimising the ‘friction’ between you and your habit.
One study found that gym-goers who travelled about 3.7 miles to a gym went five or more times a month, while those who lived 5.2 miles away went only about once a month.
“Look at your environment and ask, how can I make it easy to do my new small behaviour? For your morning walk, you might want to leave your shoes by the door to remind you,” advises Harrison. It could also mean leaving your yoga mat out at all times to ensure it’s the first thing you see in the morning, making you more likely to stick to a new yoga habit or, like Wendy Wood, sleeping in your running clothes to make a morning run seems like less of a chore.
Find your tribe
Our social environment is crucial to habit formation. Research shows that our health behaviours tend to be similar to those around us, so joining a group where our desired behaviour is the norm could be incredibly beneficial.
In non-Covid times, this could mean making friends at the gym or yoga studio, but even with gyms and fitness studios closed, it’s possible to meet new people who are committed to the same fitness goals as you.
Get friends involved, suggests Melinda Nicci, sports psychologist and founder and CEO of Baby2Body. “Encouraging them to make healthier habits with you means you all have a great support system and accountability in taking your new goals seriously,” says Nicci. “When you’re trying to make healthy habits – and especially when you’re trying to break unhealthy ones – you need to be surrounded by like-minded people.”
Prepare for missteps and obstacles
One of the most common reasons why fitness resolutions fail is that we don’t plan for the inevitable hurdles we’ll face – such as when our motivation hits a lull or when life gets in the way.
Harrison explains: “One helpful way to do this is to anticipate the obstacles that will arise. Ask yourself, what tends to get in the way? For example, you might have a tendency to put off your morning walk if you see an important email from your boss. Decide how you will respond to that obstacle, such as saying that you won’t check your emails until after your morning walk.”
Perhaps most importantly, try to see habit formation as self-care rather than self-punishment. A 2011 study found that those who had more self-compassion were more motivated to continue with a task, even after they’d ‘failed’.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself – developing habits takes time and you may not see as much progress straight away as you’d like to,” says Dr Chandler. “Remember that as long as you’re engaging in the healthy behaviour, you’re doing something good for your health and that progress will build over time.”
Behaviour change is hard and takes sustained long-term effort. “On the days where you’re not able to do what you want to do, instead of beating yourself up, treat yourself the way you would treat a friend,” Harrison adds. “Beating yourself up despite what we believe doesn’t increase our motivation, nor our goal achievement. Self-compassion is what inspires us to keep going.”
Work on your self-compassion by forgiving yourself for not being perfect (no one is, despite what Instagram may imply), reminding yourself that you’re doing your best and reflecting on the progress you’ve already made.
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