Making exercise a habit

As exercise professionals, we regularly see people who are referred to us to begin an exercise program to aid in the management or prevention of a health problem. One of our greatest challenges is encouraging people who aren’t regular exercisers, and who maybe haven’t been for many years, to start! It can be a real challenge not only for us, but for our clients as despite many reasons to want to exercise, particularly their health, there always seems to be something holding them back.

These days, we hear a lot about goal-setting, reducing barriers and forming habits in order to develop an exercise routine, all of which can no doubt play a major role in starting to exercise and sticking to it regularly. New research from Iowa State University has suggested that while these are important, one of the major determinants of developing an exercise habit is a combination of a conditioned cue and intrinsic reward.

The authors explain that rather than simply relying on the cue, for example a morning alarm, or the end of the workday, it’s this as well as an intrinsic reward that helps develop and maintain exercise as a habit. They refer to an intrinsic reward as the feelings we get from exercising (eg. the activity is enjoyable, or it reduces stress).

To use an example; the morning alarm is more than a signal that it’s time to get up – for many people it means it’s time to go to the gym, or go for a walk. But if exercise is not a habit, that cue from the alarm may trigger debate over whether to exercise or stay in bed. The difference between those who get to the exercise is that they have experienced intrinsic reward – the feelings they get from exercising, which far outweigh the feelings they would experience from staying in bed longer.

The trick is, that intrinsic reward is different for every individual. Some may experience physiological benefit (through releasing endorphins or serotonin), while others may enjoy the company of a friend whilst exercising. Even trickier, is the fact that intrinsic reward takes time and experience to develop – not everyone loves exercising when they first start! However, when exposed to it enough, intrinsic reward can develop in time. This is important, as extrinsic factors are often the reason people start exercising (eg. to lose weight, improve blood pressure etc). If the results aren’t seen within a specific time frame, then the exercise tends to taper off and become dormant again. However, if the intrinsic reward is given enough time to develop, then the exercise can become habitual in response to a cue (eg. morning alarm).

A big part of our role then, is to tap into peoples’ intrinsic motivations. Asking them to express their feelings after an exercise session is a part of this, as it helps bring consciousness to the activity and it’s immediate affect on their feelings. With reinforcement and recognition of intrinsic reward, exercise can become a habit.


Intrinsic rewards predict exercise via behavioral intentions for initiators but via habit for maintainers

Phillips, A et al, Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology, Vol 5(4), Nov 2016, 352-364

#makingexerciseahabit #intrinsicreward #exercisehabit #motivation #intrinsicmotivation

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