Brushing your teeth. Driving your route to work. Taking a shower. Drinking your morning coffee. Scrolling through social media.
These are all things that are habitual behaviors for many people. They are things that we can often do automatically and with very few cognitive resources. When it comes to health and wellness goals, we can develop habits that either work toward or against our goals. Therefore, in order to achieve these goals, it is important to understand what habits are, where they come from, how they are formed, and how to break or replace them. This two-part series will explore habits from all angles and provide some tips for meeting your wellness goals.
What are habits?
Habitual behaviors are the things that we automatically do when we are exposed to a certain environmental cue(s) that have triggered that behavior in the past (Rebar et al., 2020). These are things that we do because we have always done them. One estimate suggests that up to 45% of our daily behaviors tend to be habitual, taking place in the same location every single day (Neal et al., 2006). The formation of habits is impacted by four distinct factors: rewards, consistency, environmental cues, and behavioral complexity (Lee & Yoon, 2019).
- Rewards: When we start to engage in a behavior over and over again, if that behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. Examples of rewards may include joy, pride, or inherent interest in the behavior (intrinsic reward) or being given awards, praise, or money (extrinsic reward). Intrinsic rewards are more likely to lead to persistent habits. Alternatively, we can also increase how often we engage in a particular behavior by taking away something we dread. For example, if you notice that you constantly have sore muscles after your leg day workouts, you might engage in more behaviors (like stretching or increasing sleep) in order to remove or get rid of that soreness.
- Consistency: Considered the most important of the four factors, we must do the behavior in the same contexts on a very regular basis. The required frequency for it to be considered “consistent” depends on the behavior type, as some things might be done daily while others might be weekly or monthly.
- Environmental cues: We most commonly perform habitual behaviors as the result of some environmental cue that we may or may not be aware of. To stick with the teeth brushing example, most people do their morning brush as soon as they wake up or immediately following breakfast. The time or situation is serving as an environmental cue to brush one’s teeth. Sometimes, we are unaware of the trigger or cue, particularly if it is more ambiguous or abstract (Rebar et al., 2020). For example, many people scroll through social media any time they have a free moment with nothing to do (in other words, when they are bored).
- Behavioral complexity: The ease with which we can perform the task influences how likely or strong a habit will form. Tasks that are easier to perform tend to be behaviors that we can form strong habits around fairly quickly (like repetitive exercise such as walking/jogging). We are still capable of forming habits around more complex behaviors, but they take longer to form strong associations (like complex weight lifts).
Why do we form habits?
Habits are actually an important component of human behavior. If we had to be intentional and think critically about every single thing we did, it would overwhelm our minds and leave us with less ability to do some of the mental tasks that we otherwise need to do. It is particularly helpful to develop habits around things that promote our survival (e.g., eating) so we can devote our mental energy toward things that help us to grow as a human being (Cigna, 2021). When it comes to health and wellness goals, habits help us to keep going even when we don’t have motivation or the desire to engage in a particular task (like brushing our teeth or going for a run). Once a habit is formed, consistency becomes much easier than in the early stages of habit formation.
When it comes to exercise habits, there are really two distinct phases in which habits can develop. The first is exercise initiation, which is anything in the preparatory phase of the exercise process. For example, getting dressed, getting together needed equipment, planning what type of workout you will do, driving to the gym etc. are all considered exercise initiation. When our motivation to actually do a task (like exercise) is low, having a strong preparatory habit can increase the likelihood that we will actually engage in the behavior (Kaushal et al., 2017). The second part is exercise performance or actually engaging in the exercise behaviors themselves (Kaushal et al., 2017; Lee & Yoon, 2019).
Research shows that early rewards and behavioral complexity (two of the habit antecedents) positively impact the habit formation in the exercise initiation phase. If we experience intrinsic rewards for a particular exercise and the exercise is not complex, we are more likely to engage in the exercise preparation phase (Lee & Yoon, 2019). At the same time, consistency has been found to be the strongest predictor of both exercise initiation and performance (Kaushal et al., 2017). Together, these studies suggest that we need to make the preparation phase as pleasant (or not bothersome) as possible and keep our behaviors consistent in order to form strong exercise habits.
Personally, I feel like many people in the fitness world (influencers and other fitness buffs) tout “discipline” as the reason that they workout so regularly despite not always having motivation to work out. While this may certainly be the case for some, I can’t help but wonder if habits are just as influential in this process?
Stay tuned for our upcoming article on how to form and break habits, plus some helpful tips for that process! Let us know in the comments below what habits you have intentionally formed throughout your life.
Cigna. (2021). The psychology of habitual behaviors.
Kaushal, N., Rhodes, R. E., Meldrum, J. T., & Spence, J. C (2017). The role of habit in different phases of exercise. The British Journal of Health Psychology, 22, 429-448.
Lee, Y. & Yoon, Y. (2019). Exploring the formation of exercise habits with the latent growth model. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 126(5), 843-861.
Rebar, A., Gardner, B., & Verplanken, B. (2020). Habit in exercise behavior. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (pp. 986-998). John Wiley & Sons Inc.