The Race to Habitual Exercise

As the cold weather descends upon us, the days are getting shorter, food is getting heavier, and the thought of exercising sometimes seems, well, insane.

With such seasonality, we tend to change our exercise and eating habits. It’s incredibly hard to fight against the biological urge to stay in, stay warm, and build up that fat layer. And for those lucky southern-hemisphere dwellers, this period also brings motivational trouble. Ask anyone that’s tried to maintain a running habit in the Australian summer (i.e. the sweaty, arachnid-filled tenth circle of hell).

The Oatmeal created a perfect character to illustrate lack of exercise motivation – The Blerch. The Blerch is the voice of surrender, of quitting. It’s the fat cake-loving cherub that plays a major role in our global obesity epidemic. But with time, The Blerch can be quelled.

We’ve all heard the statement that it takes 21 days to form a habit… three weeks and you’re set! But that’s rubbish, just one of those mangled, Chinese Whispers-esque sayings born out of a 1960’s pop-psychology book.

Herein lies a dangerous lesson – if enough people state something as fact, pretty soon everyone believes it.

Science tells us that, on average, it actually takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes habitual (Lally et al., 2010). Specifically, it can take anywhere from 18-254 days to adopt a new habit. This timeframe varies wildly depending on the person, circumstances, and behaviour in question – important elements that will be discussed another day.

That’s two to eight months of slogging and self-motivation. Not 21 days.

The Blerch - cartoon by The Oatmeal (http://theoatmeal.com/)

The Blerch – cartoon by The Oatmeal (http://theoatmeal.com/)

Importantly, Lally’s study indicated that failing every now and then doesn’t significantly affect the overall outcome. So don’t worry if you miss a planned workout because you just had to watch Downton Abbey that night. Don’t worry if you accidentally scoffed an entire packet of Oreos in one sitting. Building better habits isn’t an all-or-nothing act. It’s a process, and can take a long time to achieve.

Overall, it’s best to forget about how many days you’ve been forging ahead, ignore The Blerch, and simply focus on doing the work.

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Lauren Wright

Globetrotting Aussie postdoc on the hunt for science, logic, and humanity. I research metabolism, mitochondria, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other weighty stuff.

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