Why habits are so important for your fitness plan

Have you ever wondered why starting a new fitness regime can seem extremely hard and then all of a sudden without even realizing, you get into the swing of things and it seems to just be 2nd nature?. Or have you ever tried to give up something such as junk food like crisps and chocolate with endless failures causing us to constantly make  resolutions of "tomorrow i'll start " or "i'll be good from Monday". 

This is the case with Anna and Leanne. Both in their 30's and finding themselves gaining weight over time, Anna decided enough was enough and this weight needed shifting. She began her exercise program and eating healthy. She decided at the start she would just set her alarm at 7 everyday before work at 9 and make sure that she went on a jog every single day. Eventually she found herself eating a lot healthier and without even thinking she's out the door every morning on her morning jog. She's down seven pounds in the meantime and feels great  

Just like Anna, Leanne has also found herself gaining weight over the years. The weekly curries and occasional wine and crisps eventually caught up with her. But unlike Anna, Leanne is still struggling to get into any sort of routine. She comes in from a long day's work and the last thing she wants to do is go on a jog or go the gym and train. Instead when she gets in from work, understandably she puts the feet up and watches the soaps with a few treats like a pack of crisps and a bar, or some tea and chocolate digestives. Leanne knows that she needs to just get into the swing of things and she'll be flying. She swears this bar is her last ever and Monday she'll be good again. 

But Monday comes around and what happens? it's the same again. Wrecked after work the dairy milk and pack of tayto is just too nice and instead decides next Monday is the right time. And this continues and continues until the next new years resolution, or until Leanne has had enough and forces herself or get to an exercise class or weight loss club.

How does Anna seem to be doing so well, while Leanne continues to just struggle incredibly with developing a routine and sticking with it to become healthier? The reason simple but extremely powerful is the habits we create for ourselves.

Habits

It's estimated that up to 40% of all our activities are just habitual and we don't even notice we are doing them. That's right- almost half of everything we do is without thought!!!. Habits are involuntary processes we carry out day to day to make our lives easier. This could be as simple as getting up in the morning and doing the exact same thing or having the exact same breakfast or it could be driving the car the same route everyday without much awareness. It could also be more dangerous such as smoking or over eating. From an evolutionary standpoint this could have been done so the body could save energy for more important tasks such as thinking and survival from dangerous animals. In today's terms habits can be developed by formula one drivers needing to drive a car flawlessly or eating 10 donuts on our break when we are bored. 

Think of a habit like a song on repeat. What happens is this song/habit gets entrenched in the brain when carried out consistently whether good or bad and just gets replayed over and over again without any conscious awareness. So this could be biting your nails when you are bored or brushing your teeth as soon as you wake up.

What's most interesting about habits however is that we can create new ones. And even more interesting we can also replace old unproductive habits with new healthy habits that help us achieve our goals. This is why habits can be so important in the pursuit of losing weight or carrying out a fitness program. 

Creating Habits

There are three steps that help us create a new habit. These are Cue, Routine, Reward. This is called the habit loop and we can apply it to every single habit we have in our lives.

Here we'll apply the habit loop to the simple habit that most of us do in this age of smartphones. You see nearly everyday or might do it yourself. As soon as we sit down, we take our phone out and check social media- which possibly may have brought you to this article.

Cue

This is what causes us to initiate our habit in the first instance. For example this could be every time you sit down, you take your phone out and check social media.

Routine

This is the action itself so the act of checking social media.

Reward

This the response that re-enforces the habit and programs our brains to continue with the action. In this instance, when we see a little red notification, we get a little rush of excitement and that simple act makes us have a little bit of enjoyment with wasting time on our little phones.

Bringing this back to the story of Anna and Leanne, we can gain a little bit of an understanding why Anna's new fitness regime has been such a hit while Leanne continues to struggle. Without maybe any knowledge at all, both have created habits whether good or bad that are having a dramatic effect on the pairs success in weight loss and fitness.

When we look at Anna we see she has began running every morning when she wakes up at the same time. Looking at how habits are formed we see how this habit was created. Remember to create a new habit we need a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue is her alarm goes off at seven, this tells her brain that it's now time to train, the routine is the act of jogging and then the reward is the great feeling she gets after the run due to the endorphins running through her body.

For Leanne, the exact same process is working against her. She arrives home exhausted from work. She sits down on the couch and puts the television on. Here's our cue. This triggers her brain to grab the wine or treats and put on the soaps. Now we have a nice routine occurring. The wine and treats help relax Leanne and give her a nice enough reward to ensure the habit stays with her. 

 

Here we see the exact same process creating habits for both Anna and Leanne. Both have created habits unknowingly however Anna's habit is leading her to health and a better life while Leanne's is leading to frustration and weight gain.

So what can we do?

So as we can see, habits can be very powerful when it comes to starting and sticking with our fitness regimes and diets. This is why some people truly make change while others continue to struggle. Probably reading this you may notice that you have your own habits that you perform on a regular basis whether good or bad. 

I strongly advise you don't start picking all your bad habits and decide to try use this method and have a meltdown. Instead at the start I recommend you try this.

  1. Create one healthy habit
  2. Overcome one bad habit

Create one healthy habit

There is absolutely no point trying to create a million habits and then expecting that a fitness regime will come easily and our lives will magically be perfect. Instead look to create one habit that will be very beneficial to you in terms of your fitness goals. You can use the habit loop to create this habit. For instance Anna chose exercise as her habit. In this instance the cue was the alarm clock, the routine was running and the reward was feeling better and more energized. Our goal might not be as dedicated as that instead we might decide to change one thing in our diets. This could be eating a healthy breakfast. Our cue could be as soon as the alarm goes off we go down pour a bowl of porridge and have that for breakfast. 

Don't worry if it doesn't pan out perfectly, just make the conscious effort to create the habit and you will succeed. In a case for myself I recently began to wake up at 6am most mornings and struggled immensely. Using this technique my cue was my alarm, the routine was get up and make a coffee and the reward then is my little caffeine buzz and also me being awake at an early time. 

Remove one unhealthy habit

Now removing an unhealthy habit can be a lot trickier than creating a new habit at times and when it comes to habits like smoking obviously other considerations need to be taken. But for this instance  we'll take Leanne's habit of coming in from work and sitting down and eating junk food. 

The most important part for getting rid of the bad habit is identifying the cue in the "cue, routine, reward" loop. 

There are usually 5 instances that cause us to have cravings. These are 

  1. Location- is there a certain place that you tend to get the craving 
  2. Time -Is there a specific time of the day you tend to notice you partake in this bad habit
  3. Emotional State-Do you partake in the habit when you are feeling a specific way?
  4. Other People- Does the habit tend to occur when around other people
  5. Previous action- Did you just do something that causes to engage in the habit.

Your job is to first note and catch yourself in the act of performing the habit. In the case of Leanne this is when she sits down to watch the television and eats junk food. We can now look at which of the 5 cues are causing her to partake in the routine of eating the crisps. She's exhausted after a long days work so in this instance it appears emotional state would be the cue for overeating.  

From there it's a case of switching out activities that will give Leanne just enough of a reward where she doesn't still crave the junk food. This takes experimenting on your behalf if you find your habit. This could be switching the chocolate for a yoghurt or switching the crisps for popcorn. Anything can work but it takes time and patience. You may find yourself slipping up but just keep trying and eventually you will catch the habit. 

I'll use a specific case again for myself here where I had a similar problem. I used to have a lot of assignments in college being in fourth year and everyday I would start the day with the determination that I would come home after college and get all my assignments done or lots of study done. As soon as I arrive in the door at 5 or 6- what was my default reaction? I would plonk myself on the couch, social media out and hours wasted looking at dogs singing songs. This led to many days wasted and many all nighters needing to be performed to get work done. 

in this instance, my cue was boredom and tiredness at 6 o'clock from college. The routine was the binge watching of the x factor for dogs and then the reward was I would laugh at the most stupid videos all day. What I eventually done was avoided sitting on the couch when I got in and instead I would go up to my room and open up a lecture slide on my phone instead of social media. This eventually led me to doing well in college.

So there we go guys. Creating habits is a crucial step in being successful in fitness and in other aspects of life. Hopefully now you can apply the cue, routine, reward loop to create healthy habits for yourself. 

If you need to find out more about habits, I highly suggest you read the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg where these ideas and tips originate from.

 

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