The habit series
For exercise and ‘healthy eating’ to become both an enjoyable and sustained part of your life these activities need to become habitual. Quite often new gym-goers will have some idea of what they would like to achieve, but are unsure of how to actually go about achieving it. What follows is some practical, science-supported advice to creating healthier habits. It’ll assure you you’re not “lazy”, and that you don’t need “more willpower “or “discipline” to achieve your health and fitness goals.
Exercise in its many forms can have a positive and life-changing effect on the physical and mental quality of life of anyone, and everyone. But there’s a wide range of barriers and fears that can inhibit your attempts to increase your physical activity and prevent you from achieving your health and fitness goals.
These factors may include stifling perfectionism (a need to have the perfect plan all mapped out), or information overload (with the internet often filled with conflicting advice) or following quick-fix solutions that don’t actually fix anything or cause more issues than there were to begin with. These can all create a sense of paralysis, or an over reliance on finding the right type of everlasting motivation to end the repetitive “burst and bust cycle”.
“Many people find it difficult, with their many work, study and family related priorities to focus or justify any attention directed towards improving their own physical and mental wellbeing”
Relying on motivation alone to drive you, can lead to you feeling ‘burnt out’, developing potentially negative associations with exercise, and a sense of disappointment or failure. If you feel that a lack of time and energy is effecting you achieving your health and fitness goals, you are not alone.
Many people find it difficult, with their many work, study and family related priorities to focus or to justify any attention directed towards improving their own physical and mental well-being. But I’m here to assure you that you’re worth the effort, and that it doesn’t require a dramatic 180-degree lifestyle change, and that it can be done in ways that are much easier than you think.
The saying “If it were easy, anyone could do it” used often in a health and fitness context, implies that achieving your fitness goals has to be a struggle for it to be significant, that it has to be undertaken with an “all or nothing approach” or that only a select few of the population who are disciplined or motivated enough can successfully live a ‘healthy’ lifestyle.
BJ Fogg, however, the author of Tiny Habits has spent over twenty years researching and implementing behavioural science; he has found that in the early stages of habit formation, for anyone looking to make any kind of sustained lifestyle change, that making it “easy” is exactly what needs to be done. If you haven’t yet been able to make some form of exercise an enjoyable and regular part of your life, you’re not lazy, and you don’t need more willpower or discipline.
Here, is some practical advice using Fogg’s ABC “recipe” to creating your own healthier habits in an achievable, scaffolded manner that will foster early feelings of success, increase your confidence, and help create some momentum moving you towards an improved lifestyle and a positive relationship with exercise.
Image from Virgin Books
A – Anchors, anchors are something that are already engrained in your daily routine (i.e. brushing your teeth, your morning shower, that morning cup of coffee before you start work) that you can use as a reliable daily prompt to remind you to perform your new habitual behaviour. This is where you find small moments of time to introduce new behaviours to your routine in a small, achievable way.
Consider things like the environment you’re in, the time of day, and the emotions associated with the anchor (or potential anchors) that best connect with your desired habit. For example, use an anchor you already perform in your kitchen to help aid a hydration habit (i.e. after turning on the jug I will fill a glass of water). If you prefer to relax and wind down in the evenings, using brushing your teeth as an anchor before a small workout activity may not be ideally suited for you. Find an anchor in the morning and achieving the tiniest of activity’s after it will start your morning off with success. Be willing to be flexible and alter it to best suit you.
B – Behaviour, if you have an aspiration to achieve a certain outcome (i.e. fat loss or strength etc) list a number of enjoyable, concrete behaviours that’ll help you achieve it (I.e. strength training two times a week). Then pick one to focus on first and scale it down to its simplest form (i.e. one exercise) something so easy that it requires little to no motivation to perform it.
For example, given the popularity of the ten push up challenge at the moment on social media, say upper body strength/ muscle is something you wish to develop but you have never attempted ten push-ups before, or you have and it left you feeling depleted and you avoided ever trying it again. Scale it down to just one modified incline push up. Make it inevitable that you succeed at the activity you set for yourself. The next day, perform another single push-up, one day try for 2 and so on and so forth.
If you have no interest in performing ten push ups pick something relevant to you and find ways to scale that down. Wish to develop stronger, “toned” legs? Choose something like a bodyweight squat. If you want to incorporate cardio into your daily routine pick your anchor and use it as a prompt to prepare your sneakers at the front door, and that can be it! That’s how tiny it can start, the next time put them on and take a quick walk to the end of your street and back or around the block.
If time is a factor for you, all of these activities are much easier to commit too compared to an entire workout or a 30-minute walk. You’ll find even with the tiniest of activities that you’ll gain an increasing confidence in your abilities and capacity to set habits. A walk around the block can gradually become two blocks, a more challenging hill walk, or eventually a jog. One push up can become a set of ten, then become a part of full body circuit, one bodyweight squat can gradually become a loaded squat for 3 sets of 10.
When you feel accomplished and experience more and more of those feel good endorphins that come post-exercise, post-achieving the tiny activities you set it won’t be hard to gradually start finding or making more time for exercise or healthier eating habits.
Some research has found that creating ‘exercise preparation’ habits helped to create long term exercise adherence. A lot of people find summoning the energy to get changed and out the door to be the most challenging part. Exercise preparation habits can be created using the same methods. Use an anchor from your ‘before-bed’ routine or when you arrive home from work (i.e. after I close the front door I will organise my workout outfit) so that you lessen the resistance in the morning, making it as easy as possible to get exercise in the following day.
“positive experiences reinforce habits”BJ Fogg (PhD), Tiny Habits (2019)
C – Celebrate, take a moment after to celebrate having taken a small step towards living a healthier lifestyle. The celebratory action or reward needs to follow the action as soon as possible to positively reinforce the habit.
This can take the form of something small and quick like a literal ‘pat on the back’, a wee “ whoop whoop” to yourself (it sounds awkward but it’s surprisingly effective). If you time to spare follow it with a ‘guilt-free’ hour of a Netflix episode, a quiet moment to yourself with a book/magazine, your favourite post-workout meal, whatever you choose it needs to be something that has value to you and that you genuinely enjoy.
I’ve heard quite a few times when I mention my choice of work that people intend on “coming to the gym when they’re fitter”. Depending on your circumstances, now could be a good time to find a way to slowly increase your exercise-related habits before the gyms re-open by finding a way to fit it in to your regular routine starting at home. Use it as a way to increase your confidence leading up to your entry or re-entry to the gym where you can start to increasingly challenge yourself in new ways, again starting “easy” and progressively challenging yourself in realistic, manageable ways. Or if you’re looking to ‘reset’ your life after lockdown ends you can use these methods to help you execute the what with the how in a way that’s been proven to last.
Plan your “tiny habit”
If you have your intended outcome/goal in mind i.e. stronger, improved cardiovascular fitness, more hydrated, meal preparation habits etc. find one small and simple activity or exercise to introduce into your weekly or daily routine that relates to your goal. Fogg’s helpful format is as follows:
After I (insert anchor)…I will (insert behaviour) then I will…. (celebrate)
Place it somewhere you’ll see it regularly. You don’t need more motivation, and you don’t need more willpower or discipline, you need to:
“try any habit, make it tiny, find where it naturally fits in your life and nurture its growth”BJ, Fogg
Take one tiny step and let me make the preparation phase a little easier for you: email me with “habits template” to firstname.lastname@example.org for a helpful, pre-made template, and/or more personalised advice and support.
Strive for progress, not perfection.
Fogg, BJ., (2019). Tiny Habits: The small changes, that change everything. Virgin Books, UK.
Eyles, Bevan James., (2014). The Fitness Attitude. Potton & Burton, NZ.