The 101 of Habit Formation and How to Maintain the Resolution to Exercise

February 18, 2016

At this time of year many of us make that classic New Year’s Resolution to do more exercise. We know that exercise is good for us; it enables us to lose weight, strengthen our heart, decrease stress and build more energy. It’s a very good idea. The new year beginning wipes the slate clean, forgives us of our lifestyle sins over the holidays, and gives us a chance to start again.

In January things are great, we visit the gym along with nearly everybody else, but by the time Valentine’s Day arrives the habit has begun to wane. By St Patrick’s day it’s like it never existed.

So given the goal is real and the rational is solid, why is it that the habit just fades to black? Put simply, it’s because most of us don’t structure exercise to fold into the habit cycle of our phycology. We don’t reward ourselves quickly enough, and the payoff is just too far away for it to be motivating.

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The Cycle: Trigger, Action, Reward

ï        The Trigger

What initiates you to go to the gym (it might be walking out of the office at 5:30pm)

ï        The Action

Doing the exercise itself

ï        The Reward

The instant pat on the back you get from doing the action

For example: Take an evening chocolate habit. The trigger may be the kids going down to sleep, the house going quiet, the lights being dimmed, and the TV being turned on. The action is to grab a hot drink and a block of chocolate, while the reward is that never fail sugar, cocoa, some TV entertainment and relaxation. Because the reward is so instant, the next day when the kids go to sleep, the lights go off and the TVs goes back on again the urge to pick up that chocolate block is almost irresistible. Scientifically, what is happening is that the reward is releasing the “liking drug” (called opioid) in the brain. When it is triggered again it releases the “wanting” drug known as dopamine. The brain loves rewards and is structured that way. If you like something immediately after a behavior, when you are triggered again you will want it again. Without this system we would sit around all day with no motivation to eat, socialize, or exist.

That in mind, in order to create the urge to want to exercise, we simply need to begin by providing a reward for the action (creating the “liking drug” opioid) immediately. Leaving the ROI (return on investment) as “weight loss in 3 months time,” or “lower blood pressure in 6 months time,” won’t work. The exerciser will need to rely on willpower in order to maintain the habit, Since willpower is a limited resource, the more we use at work that day the less we have that evening, it explains why we skip workout in the evening and eat the chocolate!

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This is where wearable technology comes in: Tracking the behavior of exercise and rewarding the user for the process. The reward comes throughout the workout to encourage the exerciser’s ‘mid game’ and over time helps focus the user on goal setting and goal attainment. By adding challenges and social leader boards, this the reward becomes amplified. We all do more and do better when others are watching, because the reward of recognition is multiplied.

So the tip this year is to engage with wearables, track what you are doing, set goals, make progress towards your goals, and get others involved. The idea is to reward yourself after every workout so that the urge to do it again is greater—the bigger the reward the more you want to do it again!

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