How long does it take to form a habit?

From brushing our teeth, to the route we take to work—we all have our own daily routines. Research shows that 43% of what we do every day is performed out of habit. So how do you make physical activity a part of your daily life—better yet, a part of your routine?

Some people suggest that it can take anywhere between 21 to 30 days to form a habit. Yet, we consistently see 7-day, 10-day, and 30-day challenges to help us learn a new behaviour. Is there any science behind these timelines?

As usual, the truth is murky. Habits require time, effort, purposefulness, and persistence in order to become an automatic action or behaviour. There is no magic number of days or length of time that will make a behaviour a habit. In fact, depending on the behaviour you are trying to change, it can take as much as 200+ days to make a new habit stick.

But don’t lose hope!

One study says that by focusing on one action and repeating that action in the same context (same time, same place), can help you create the foundation for long-lasting change. What’s more, these repetitive or “automatic actions” will actually free our mental resources for other tasks. If you use brushing your teeth as an example, ask yourself if you really use that time to think about cleaning your teeth. You’re probably thinking about what the rest of your day looks like. By making it a habit, you have freed up some mental space, and have one less decision to make that day. So, it can’t hurt you to commit to trying out one of those repetitive 7-day, 10-day, or 30-day challenges. It might help you make the activity a habit.

WHAT ELSE CAN YOU DO?

Understand how habits work.

Most people struggle with developing physical activity or exercise habits because they never enter a self-sustaining positive feedback loop.

A positive feedback loop looks like this:

Step 1: You exercise or engage in physical activity
Step 2: You see benefits! You might see improved cardio, experience more energy, or sleep better. You might even receive some encouraging words of reinforcement from a friend.
Step 3: You feel good.
Step 4: By feeling good, you are more likely to approach step one and start the cycle again.

BUT WHAT IF I DON’T GET THE POSITIVE FEEDBACK I WAS HOPING FOR?

The International Journal of Obesity coined a term called “false hope syndrome,” which is experienced by people when their reality doesn’t live up to their expectations.

By setting a goal that is too high, or too unrealistic for your current level of activity, you won’t make it to step three, feeling good.

So, the key is to set a realistic goal. And when it comes to setting active goals, you’ll know they’re unrealistic if they require you to turn your whole life upside down. Instead, try setting smaller, more specific goals or actions.

Focus on the intrinsic, or internal, benefits that you hope to see. Think about those happy, proud feelings that come with completing a good workout. You’ll be more motivated to keep working on that positive feedback loop.

HOW WILL YOU KNOW WHEN YOU’VE SUCCEEDED?

You want automaticity to develop – in other words, you want the behaviour to become second-nature to you. You want it to feel weird that you’re not doing it. That’s when you know it’s truly become a part of your life.

SOME MORE TIPS:

Try some of these tips to turn an active behaviour into a habit:

  • Be prepared. Lay out your clothes, shoes, sports bra, etc. the night before.
  • Buddy up. Getting active with a friend can help you make a stronger commitment.
  • Break it down. Sometimes it’s easier to break your workouts into smaller chunks or to focus on “going a little bit further.” For example, if you’re on a run, try pushing yourself to run to the next stop sign or hydro pole. A little more adds up over time.
  • Plan your activities/workouts ahead of time. It’s a rookie mistake to make your active time a “maybe.”
  • Lower your expectations. Just because you’re not feeling up to your usual one-hour routine, don’t skip working out altogether. By doing a little activity, even if it’s just a 20-minute workout, you can keep your eyes on the prize!

The last golden rule to remember? Some activity is always better than none. Even if it’s not the exact same activity, repeated in the exact same way every day, there are always benefits to moving more than you would normally do on a typical day.