How long does it take to transform a new fitness or nutrition regimen into a sustainable habit? If this question is at the forefront of your mind every time you embark on a new journey to improve your overall wellness, you are not alone! Although starting a new wellness adventure can be exciting and invigorating, there is also an element of uncertainty that comes along with the newness of unfamiliar territory. Do I have the dedication to stay committed to my goals? Am I working out enough? Am I eating the right foods? How long does it take to embrace this lifestyle as my new normal?
A quick internet search spawns a variety of timelines about creating a new, permanent habit, with most popular results ranging from 21 to 28 days. We have all seen or heard these numbers in the media or casual conversation, and they have become the standard by which many people measure their abilities to successfully form a new habit. What oftentimes throws a wrench into our new fitness and nutrition routines, however, is the sense of disappointment we feel when our lifestyle changes are not yet automatic behavioral patterns after 21 to 28 days of dedicated effort. At this point, the changes might still feel like chores. But here’s the good news—this feeling is entirely normal. Understanding why we maintain this expectation to form new habits in less than a month’s time despite so many of us feeling as if we are merely on the brink of creating substantial changes requires a brief unpacking of the history of these numbers as well as how the body and mind collectively react to such changes.
A Brief History
The notion that long-standing habits are created in 21 days originated in the 1960’s when a plastic surgeon observed that his patients took roughly this length of time to positively adjust to their amputations. These adaptations included a decreased reliance on the phantom limb, the normalization of their altered daily routines, and overall acceptance of their new way of living. During that same era, in an effort to both decrease costs of care and reintegrate individuals with mental illnesses back into society, mental health institutions decreased habitants’ lengths of stay to 28 days, positing that significant behavioral/mental changes occurred during the 28-day timeframe. Based on these two notable findings, the intervals of 21 to 28 days were extended to anyone forming a new habit, and thus became the general guidelines for solidifying lifestyle changes. But do these findings hold true for people trying to make changes to their physical and nutritional health?
On a physiological level, the answer is “yes.” Approximately four weeks into a new fitness routine, your body starts to utilize fuel efficiently for energy production. Muscles experience an increase in contractile force (you can lift heavier objects than when you started), stamina increases, and the brain-body connection improves making once awkward movement patterns feel natural. These physical changes occur all the way down to the cellular level and demonstrate that physically, the body is potentially prepared for a permanent habit change. But physical changes do not occur in isolation and are not independent of how your brain processes these changes.
How your brain interprets physical changes depends on several factors, many of which are situational and unique to each individual. For example, the brain typically needs to try new foods three to five times over the course of a couple weeks before the unfamiliar food becomes palatable; therefore, nutrition changes to complement your new training plan might not sit well with you for several weeks as you experiment with unfamiliar food combinations. Perhaps you have started a new job, you are in the process of moving, or you are training your new puppy. For the most part, these are positive changes, but nonetheless, they are still stressors that require a large amount of your mental energy. We do not possess limitless amounts of willpower or mental fortitude. Our daily circumstances compete with our commitment to new health and wellness goals with fluctuating amounts of energy directed towards each endeavor. Lastly, in the same way that the brain takes time to adjust to new foods, it also takes time to adjust to new movement routines. The sensation of soreness, how capable you feel during your workouts, and your comfort level with experiencing new stimuli are all contributors to how you perceive your fitness journey.
The Bottom Line
The 21-to-28 day rule to habit-forming was a great fit for the individuals who experienced behavioral changes in the controlled environments of their time; however, this time frame is not necessarily applicable for forming new habits outside of those realities. With all of the factors that we must reconcile to form a new fitness or nutrition habit, the current research that supports at least two months of an effort towards change seems reasonable and less daunting than trying to pressure ourselves into accepting a multitude of changes for which we are not fully ready within a month’s time. Most importantly, not only are we all human, we are all different humans! Each individual will respond uniquely to forming new habits based on their readiness to change, prior experiences with wellness journeys, and current life circumstances. Perhaps the lesson here is to give yourself patience and grace while embarking on your new wellness journey. Adapting permanent lifestyle changes will take some time as these are changes meant to last a lifetime. Be open to the feedback that you receive from your mind and your body (remember our constant refrain, “listen to your body” when working out) and dedicate your focus to enjoying the process of exploring your own personal journey. Whether you take two months or two years to form your new habits, you are ultimately working towards a healthier you. And this is the work that matters!
Written for Fitness Blender by Tasha Adams, ACE, NASM CPT, M.A., Clinical Mental Health Counseling
Personal Trainer/Group Exercise Instructor/Health Coach