July 9, 2015

Iowa State study finds it’s not what you do, but how you get yourself to exercise that matters

(July 9, 2015)   Developing any habit—good or bad—starts with a routine, and exercise is no exception. The trick is making exercise a habit that is hard to break. According to a new Iowa State University study, that may be easier to accomplish by focusing on cues that make going for a run or to the gym automatic.  

Some interventions designed to help people start and continue exercising may focus on the execution habit, or an exact routine to follow at the gym, said Alison Phillips, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State. However, Phillips’ research, published in the journal Health Psychology, found that it’s the instigation habit – or cues that prompt people to automatically go to the gym – that increases exercise frequency.   

“From a health perspective, we want people to engage in physical activity frequently, and so instigation habit is the type of habit to promote that to happen,” Phillips said. “Regardless of the type of exercise you’re going to do on a particular day, if you have an instigation habit, you’ll start exercising without having to think a lot about it or consider the pros and cons.”

For example, Phillips says many people exercise after work. The end of the work day presents their cue to drive to the gym and workout instead of driving home. For others, the cue may be the alarm clock going off in the morning signaling that it is time to go for a run or a bike ride. Some research suggests that it may take a month or longer of repeated behavior before a cue reliably and automatically triggers a behavior; sticking with the same time of day might help initially, Phillips said.

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