The Consistency Factor
Steve had an interesting conversation with his old girlfriend Teresa at his 20-year high school reunion:
- Teresa: "Wow, you look great! You're so fit! What have you been doing?"
- Steve (somewhat baffled): "Um, you remember how I was chubby back in high school, but then I started lifting weights and eating better when I was in college?"
- Teresa: "Yeah."
- Steve: "Well, I never stopped."
Call it the consistency factor. See, Steve has done all kinds of training in the last 20 years. He dabbled in powerlifting, he spent some time doing 5Ks, and he even tried CrossFit (gasp!). What didn't Steve do? He didn't stop.
Most people can get started, but not many can keep going like Steve did. So, what's the deal? Was it the fact that Steve did a lot different types of workouts? Or was it something else? Science has actually looked into this.
The Two Types of Habits
If the big secret is "don't stop" then what's the best way to stay consistent to insure frequent training? It has to do with habit formation.
Habits, both good and bad, form because of cues – things that signal us to do certain things. In the study of habits, there's something called an "instigation habit" and something called an "execution habit."
An execution habit is like the exact routine to follow at the gym. In fancy talk, it's "automated movement through the behavioral sequence."
An instigation habit is different. This has to do with the cues that prompt you to automatically go to the gym. Fancy talk: "The habit process initiates the behavioral sequence."
In one preliminary study, researchers tracked the exercise habits of 118 healthy adults. What they found was pretty profound. Turns out, instigation habit strength – those signals that make you habitually get your workout in – was the only unique predictor of exercise frequency.
When they dug a little deeper, the primary instigator came down to one main thing: the time of day.
The Schedule Factor
The standout cue/signal seemed to be not how you train, but when you train. Those folks who make fitness into a lifestyle thing are hitting the gym often because they train at a certain time almost every day.
For many, the instigator is the alarm clock. They train in the morning. They don't even have to think about it really – that's the very nature of a habit; it's almost unconscious. For them, waking up and working out is like brushing their teeth before bed. Preparing for bed is the cue that signals them to brush their teeth. Waking up is their cue for exercising.
Others are cued by their lunch hour, getting off work, or getting out of chemistry class.
How to Use This Info
The researchers said it takes a month or more to develop a habit. Others have pegged it at around the 21-day mark. Whatever the case, the secret is simply to make your gym time consistent for a few weeks until the habit solidifies. That takes willpower, but only for about a month or so. Then it's habit, which doesn't require willpower.
This may also explain why it's so damn hard to train when your schedule changes. It's tougher to drag your ass into the gym on Sunday because your "wake up, work out, go to work" sequence is altered. If your program requires you to train on weekends, do your best to train the same time you normally do.
If you're an on-again/off-again lifter, then pick a specific time to train and nail it for a few weeks. If you can do that, then it's pretty easy to make it a lifelong habit.
- L. Alison Phillips, Benjamin Gardner. Habitual Exercise Instigation (vs. Execution) Predicts Healthy Adults' Exercise Frequency.. Health Psychology, 2015