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.

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:

  • Frequent repetitions in the first few days produced the largest increases in that behaviour seeming to feel more automatic for the participants.
  • The average time to reach the maximum level of automaticity was 66 days. However, there was a wide variation between individuals and different types of behaivour from 18 days to a predicted 254 days (predicting trends beyond the study’s 84 days). This 66 days is much longer than previous estimates of habit formation.
  • But even after 84 days, half the participants had not reached a high enough automaticity score for their new behaviour to be considered a habit. One reason for this might be that:
    • More complex behaviours took longer to become habits than simpler ones. For instance, exercise-related activities took on average one and a half times longer to become automatic than eating an apple or drinking more water.
  • Falling off the wagon? It seems that the rare missed day had little impact on automaticity developing, but there was some evidence that too many missed days had a cumulative effect on reducing the degree of automaticity of the behaviour (even if the missed days were spread out over time).

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?

  • Frequent early repetitions seem to help build automaticity. So rather than thinking of building up gradually, start as you mean to go on. Whether you want to go to the gym, for a run, to a class etc. three times a week – right now what is important is establishing the new habit in your existing routine, even if you don’t feel you are able to work very hard or for very long at first. Your fitness will develop over time.
  • 66 repetitions was the average in this study for activities performed daily becoming automatic. You probably aren’t planning to go to the gym every day, but let’s assume you will need to get to the gym at least 66 times to give yourself a chance of it becoming a more automatic activity (that’s 3 times a week for 22 weeks)
  • The fact that you aren’t going every day isn’t a problem but you still want it to be habitual and automatic for you to go to the gym on the days and times you have planned. What this probably means is you will need to develop several other smaller new habits: taking your gym gear to work every Wednesday; starting work earlier on Friday’s so you can fit in a spin class at lunchtime etc. I personally think that it is this type of ‘supporting habit’ that made exercise a more complex behaviour that took longer to establish as a habit in the study above.
  • If you miss one of your planned classes or sessions, that is probably not going to have much of an impact on you developing a healthy habit. However, repeatedly missing a session could prevent a habit forming. So, where possible, try to cancel out the effect of a missed session by fitting in another activity that week. If you are repeatedly missing a certain session, it may be that you have other priorities at that time – think about whether your plans need to be adjusted.

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:

  • pride in yourself
  • satisfaction at sticking to something
  • new friends
  • feel-good endorphins
  • more energy and stamina
  • incremental improvements in fitness (faster speeds, longer distances, increased strength, faster recovery time)