Finding time to exercise and starting a daily exercise routine are some of the first steps to incorporating more physical activity in your daily life. Once you’ve started a routine and found a time and place to work out, it’s important to start thinking about how to make exercise a habit.
How Long Does it Take to Make Exercise a Habit?
Conventional wisdom has long held that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. However, the 21-day timeframe has little or no research to support it and is based on a misinterpretation. It’s been repeated so often that over time, people simply began to assume it was true.
The 21-day mark may have originated with Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, who wrote in his 1960 book “Psycho-Cybernetics” that it took approximately 21 days for his surgical patients to let go of their pre-surgery mental image and accept their new appearance. How that observation transformed and amplified is a bit of a mystery, but it is so widely stated and believed that researchers decided to put it to the test.
Recently-published research used machine learning to track thousands of participants and uncover how quickly a behavior change might turn into a habit. The two habits they looked at were gym attendance, an incredibly complex behavior, and hospital handwashing, a simpler behavior.
These findings confirm that a complex behavior like exercising will take a longer time to become a habit. If you were to sign up for a gym membership with the expectation that 21 days later you’ll be a committed long-term exerciser, you’d likely be setting yourself up for failure.
Many variables impact whether you complete your daily exercise routine on any given day: work responsibilities, family responsibilities, illness, injury, fatigue, stress and more. Overcoming those obstacles on a consistent basis can be a real challenge, no matter how long you’ve been working to solidify the habit.
Compare that to something far simpler, like washing your hands when you enter a hospital room or flossing your teeth before bed, and it’s easy to see that no two habits are the same; so why would the timelines be the same? It’s time to strip the 21-day habit myth from our understanding of human behavior.
Fitness Tips for Life
While it may be discouraging to hear that you aren’t likely to make exercise a habit in 21 days, there are some strategies you can use to become a committed exerciser.
1. Begin with small steps, and engage in activities you enjoy.
A successful physical activity program has to be safe and effective, fit within your daily schedule and be realistic. While that early-morning high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class may be effective, it may not match your current fitness level. Consider also whether it’s reasonable to expect yourself to make it to the gym before work.
Self-awareness is essential to habit formation. Take time to realistically consider when you’re likely to consistently make it to the gym and what workouts are right for you. Enjoying your workouts is also a key element of long-term adherence, so your program has to be something you look forward to each day and something you’re good at. Exercise should be an escape from your daily stress, not an added stressor.
2. Prioritize regular physical activity.
In order to make physical activity a priority, schedule time in your calendar. Putting your workouts on your calendar gives them importance and permanence akin to a doctor’s appointment or a work assignment. Having workouts on your calendar also lets other people in your life, like family members or coworkers, know the value you place on your health and well-being.
3. Join a group or find a partner.
Socializing with a workout partner, joining a group fitness class or finding a community-based exercise program is a great way to make it more fun. Not only that, but studies indicate that social support can increase optimism and self-esteem, reduce stress and depressive symptoms, and may make you more likely to stick to the program. Having social support through a team sport or workout partner can add accountability to your participation, which may help you make it to the gym on those days when your motivation is waning.
4. Set smart goals and track your progress.
Setting both short-term and long-term goals can help you make consistent progress. People tend to focus on long-term, outcome-focused goals related to weight loss or athletic performance, but it’s important to also have short-term, process-oriented goals. For example, a process-oriented goal could be: “I will attend a group fitness class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week this month.”
That way, you have something measurable and attainable that you can accomplish on a regular basis. Those small stepping-stone goals can help keep you motivated and are easier to track progress on. Keep a journal or download an activity-tracking app that can help you know whether you’re reaching those goals.
5. Align your plan with your values.
You may have a goal of losing a certain amount of weight, but it’s important to explore why this is important to you. This is often referred to as “finding your why.”
Maybe you want to lose weight so you’re better able to play with your grandchildren. Or you’d like to be able to play golf without spending the next several days feeling sore. Any reason why you’re exercising is valid, and knowing why exercise is important to you can keep you motivated.
6. Finally, stay positive and be patient.
Developing an exercise habit takes time and consistent effort, but also patience and grace with yourself. If you place too much emphasis on perfection by setting a goal like “I will go to the gym every day after work” without any flexibility, you’re setting yourself for frequent “failure.” Instead, set that goal for yourself, but acknowledge that sometimes life simply gets in the way. Understanding that you will experience setbacks on your fitness journey is vital to long-term success, so stay positive and be kind to yourself every step of the way.