What Does It Take To Make A Fitness Habit?

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Written by Alexandra Black MPH, RD, LDN, Health Promotion Manager, IHRSA

Conventional wisdom seems to say that it takes doing something – flossing, taking the stairs, eating breakfast – for 27 days before it becomes a habit.  But what about something you might not do everyday? Vacuuming your floors twice a week, for example. Or, more importantly, establishing a physical activity habit. It seems as though there are barriers to nearly every healthy behavior (although the reasons for that are a discussion for another day), so how do we overcome them often enough to make exercise a habit, and not just a one-off chore?

A new research study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine may help provide some answers. The study followed 111 new gym members over 12 weeks, administering surveys throughout, and found that in order to establish a new exercise habit, participants had to at minimum come to the gym four times per week for six weeks. Additional statistical analysis indicated that behavioral complexity, consistency, emotional judgment, and environment were tied to behavior establishment. Exercise that was less complex, enjoyable, consistent, and in an environment the participant liked promoted habit formation. The authors advise trainers to keep exercise fun and simple for new clients, and to keep the focus on consistency.

What does this mean? It confirms a lot that we already knew – for example, that fun exercise would make people come back more than exercise that isn’t fun, and that consistency and repetition are necessary for the formation of a new habit.  But this also means that crossing over from “exercise is a chore” to “exercise is a regular part of my life” might be less difficult than we thought. Because while 27 days straight at the gym may cause burnout for some, four times a week for a month and a half doesn’t seem nearly so daunting. At a health club or gym, finding the components needed to build a habit doesn’t take much heavy lifting.

 A few tips for forming a new exercise habit at the gym:

  • Find what you love  – try anything and everything until you find a form of exercise you enjoy. There are myriad options from walking on the treadmill to TRX classes, and everything in between.
  • Shop around – environment and comfort are important, so look for a gym or health club that best suits you.
  • Recruit a friend – having someone to exercise with can make it more fun, and will help you stay consistent long enough to form the habit.
  • Remember why you’re here – it can end up being that bridge over uncomfortable waters to keep you going through six weeks.
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