Habit formation for exercise adherence
Written by Bianca Penning – Accredited Exercise Physiologist
Building healthy habits around exercise adherence is a powerful way to ensure consistent physical activity and long-term fitness is achieved. In other words, consistency is key!
By understanding and utilising the four stages of habit formation, we can establish a solid foundation for maintaining an active lifestyle. Let’s break down how to apply the four stages—cue, craving, response, and reward.
The cue serves as a trigger that prompts your brain to initiate a specific habit. Start by helping your clients to identify cues that will remind them to engage in physical activity. This could be setting an alarm, organising their workout clothes the night before, or even linking exercise to an existing daily routine. This could be squatting while waiting for the kettle to boil or calf raises while brushing teeth. The key is to make the cue visible and easily recognisable, ensuring it captures their attention and prompts action. Work closely with your client to develop creative and individualised cues.
Action: Choose a consistent cue, such as a specific time of day or a particular environmental trigger, to remind them to exercise.
Craving refers to the desire or motivation that arises in response to the cue. To foster a craving for exercise, it’s essential to connect physical activity with positive emotions and rewards, whether these be intrinsic or extrinsic. Reflect on the positive emotional benefits of exercise such as increased energy, improved mood, better overall health, or the physical reward of a coffee after they exercise. How can you, as a health professional, assist them in visualising the positive outcomes and associate them with the act of exercising? This will help generate a genuine desire to engage in physical activity when the cue appears.
Action: Create a compelling craving for exercise by visualising the benefits, setting meaningful goals, and focusing on the positive emotions associated with physical activity. How do they want to feel after they have exercised?
Personally, I believe this is the most important stage to consider when planning with your clients. The response stage involves the actual behaviour or action that follows the cue and craving. To ensure exercise adherence, make it as easy and as accessible as possible to respond to the cue. Start with small, achievable activities that align with their current level of exercise or incidental activity, and gradually increase the intensity and duration over time. It could be as simple as a short walk, a quick workout routine at home, or a yoga session. Another point to consider is to keep it fun and interesting. If boredom creeps in, adherence is likely to start fading. Consistency in responding to the cue is crucial for habit formation.
Action: Designate a response that aligns with their current physical fitness and preferences. Start small, be consistent, and gradually increase the challenge.
We explored this concept briefly in step 2, particularly in the context of creating a craving for exercise through positive emotions and rewards. The reward stage is essential for reinforcing the ‘habit loop.’ After completing an exercise routine, reward is important.
Rewards could be a post-workout coffee with a friend, a relaxing bath, listening to their favourite music or podcast, or indulging in a guilt-free TV show. The key is to associate the act of exercising with an enjoyable reward, reinforcing the habit and making it more likely to be repeated in the future.
Action: Assist your clients to determine a reward that is positive and aligns with their preferences.
By understanding and implementing the four stages of habit formation—cue, craving, response, and reward—you can help your clients to create healthy exercise habits that support long-term adherence. Discuss different ways to track their progress to help them visualise their achievements and maintain motivation. Encourage them to seek support and accountability from friends, family, or fitness communities. Consistency and repetition are key to solidifying these habits, while encouraging patience and persistence to help create new and improved habits.