I do a lot of work in health behaviour change in the NHS and one of the main goals for my clients is to get a healthier weight through being more active and eating more nutritious food (I hate the word ‘diet’). Essentially they are trying to develop new healthy habits and extinguish old unhealthy habits.
A habit is an action or behaviour that we do automatically and regularly, without consciously thinking about doing it. This behaviour is associated with some cue that initiates the habit. We learn our habits: I am old enough to remember the 1970s when we didnt have to wear seatbelts. But after it became something we had to do, people gradually got into the habit of automatically reaching for the seatbelt when they got into a car. Here the cue is environmental and external: sitting in a car. But the cue could be internal and emotional, so feeling anxious might be the cue that triggers the habit of biting your nails.
I aim to help my clients become better self-regulators (of their thoughts, emotions and behaviours) so that they can reach and sustain their goals. But they often get frustrated, and whilst they are eager to practice self regulatory strategies (goals, plans, self monitoring etc) to “start them off”, they also resent the fact that they might always have to “work this hard”.
Basically, they want to know how long it will take before it becomes more natural, and an easier decision, to go to the gym or say “no” to desert: how long before they have good automatic habits that require less self-control? They are right to wonder. I am also interested in knowing more about habit formation because it is well-reported that 50% of new exercisers will have stopped going to the gym or exercise classes within six months.
A recent study sheds some light on how long it might take to form a new habit. Phillippa Lally and her colleagues asked undergraduates to adopt a new healthy behaviour, linked to a cue, to be repeated once a day for 84 days. For example, going for a 15 minute run before dinner; or doing 50 sit-ups after the morning coffee-break. Participants also used a website each day to log whether they had performed the behaviour the previous day and how automatic that behaviour seemed to them. The findings showed that:
Whilst this is only one research study, what might this mean for your clients who want to develop new healthy habits and be more active more often?
This research is very new, but I am sure it will inspire more studies investigating habit formation that will help us understand our own behaviour better.
For a new exercise goal to have the best chance of becoming a habitual part of your life, you need to keep on doing it. But that means you need to keep motivated to persist for some time before the habit forms. Losing weight is the reason many people start an exercise programme and is an important goal if you are overweight, but fixating only on the number on the scales can sometimes demotivate people if they have slow weight loss or plateau. Try to avoid slumps and lapses by becoming more aware of the other benefits you are getting from exercise, which might include: