How do you make an exercise habit stick like a gymnastics landing? A new study suggests you should focus more on whatever triggers you to unthinkingly get yourself to the gym, instead of worrying about the workout routine itself. You need to develop, in other words, a strong instigation habit.

“The good news is once you have an instigation habit — once you no longer have to convince yourself to go exercise — you can choose to vary the specific activities you do without derailing your routine behavior,” Dr. Alison Phillips, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University, told Medical Daily.

We all know the rules. To maintain good health throughout our lives, we must exercise routinely and keep fit. Exercise, through the eyes of a psychologist, is simply another of many human behaviors, one that not only needs to be initiated but also maintained during ever-changing circumstances that may put a road block in the way of repetition. You usually get up early to run, for example, but today your kid is sick and needs to see a doctor. Most days you exercise right after work, but a friend calls to ask you to meet for dinner.

How do you prevent your precious routine from sliding down the drain? Perhaps you need an intervention.

Instigation and Execution

“What is an exercise habit? How do we measure an exercise habit in order to promote an exercise intervention? These are the questions we asked ourselves,” Phillips said.

She and Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a senior lecturer in psychology at King’s College London, designed the study to explore the different components of habit in order to learn how each may predict or influence how frequently we exercise. To begin, the two researchers asked 118 healthy adults to rate the strength of their instigation habit as well as their execution habit. Instigation habit is the unthinking routine that gets you to the gym; you always go during your lunch hour, for example. Execution habit is the automatic sequence of your workout once you are there; for instance, you always do the treadmill first and then free weights.

Next, the researchers tracked how often each participant exercised over the course of the month-long study. Meanwhile, each recorded workout experiences in an electronic daily diary. At study's end, Phillips and Gardner crunched the numbers and analyzed the results.

Only instigation habit strength predicted how often each participant exercised, they discovered. Execution habit did not influence exercise frequency in the least.

2 Tricks

“To us it was intuitive that deciding to go exercise, the instigation habit, would be more important than the execution habit,” Phillips told Medical Daily.Asked whether there were any tips she could suggest to someone wanting to begin an exercise program, Phillips answered without hesitation.

“We do know a couple things. If you can do the behavior in a stable context, that will help you develop those instigation cues,” she said. Rather than choosing a different time to exercise each day, for example, stick to the same time every day in the early days when you still are developing a new exercise habit.

“There’s still going to be a period of forcing yourself,” she said. “Just because you choose a cue, doesn’t make it automatic yet. That takes time and effort.”

Secondly, she noted, “if you choose a behavior that’s enjoyable, the cues will develop more quickly.”

“A stable context and something you like,” Phillips repeated, noting that it takes at least a month for the instigation habit to form. Asked what can be done to help a person through the dread of that initial habit-forming period, she laughed.

“Unfortunately there aren’t any good tricks for that yet.”

Source: Phillips LA, Gardner B. Habitual Exercise Instigation (vs. Execution) Predicts Healthy Adults’ Exercise Frequency. Health Psychology. 2015.