Build good exercise habits and feel the positive domino effect

Establishing the right routines in daily life is a very effective way of achieving fitness goals

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

It’s a dull, dreary Monday evening. I jump out of my car and put on my head torch. There’s a cold chill in the air and the rain has just started. I’m meeting my friend Denis on the steps at 6pm. “The steps” are 450 wooden steps that give access to Wreck Beach in Vancouver, Canada.

In preparation for an Arctic Rowing Expedition last summer, Denis and I trained on these steps every Monday after work. We would spend between 45 minutes and an hour running up and down, usually in rain and often in darkness (hence the head torch). We started with three repetitions of the steps and over time built up to 10.

An enormous amount of research has focused on habits. They are a key component of achieving any goal. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort and will look for ways to turn daily routines into habits as these “habit loops” are a very effective way for the brain to save energy.

Duhigg describes the three stages of a habit loop. The first is a cue: a trigger that prompts our brain to search automatically for a particular habit to use. The second stage is a routine, which is the action we then carry out. This could be something physical – or, indeed something emotional or mental. The third step is the reward: how we feel after the routine. This helps our brains decide whether the habit loop is worth remembering.

So in the context of running up and down the steps at Wreck Beach, our cue was the simple fact that it was Monday evening, the routine was running up and down steps for an hour in the dark. The reward was how good we felt after it was all done.

Consider any goal we want to achieve: our activity and our behaviour will determine whether we achieve the goal. Habits play a significant role in our behaviour, so cultivating the type of habits we want to see can be very effective over time.

There are many factors that will influence whether we exercise regularly. And by exercise, I mean this might be getting back into exercise after some years of inactivity, it could be training at a very intense level or somewhere in between. The purpose of paying attention to them is to give ourselves the best chance of getting the outcome we want. In essence, this is about stacking the odds in our favour and over time removing the need for large amounts of discipline and willpower to exercise.

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