How to... make an exercise habit stick


Is something stopping you from working out as often as you’d like? Health journalist Carole Beck explains how to turn Jessica Ennis-Hill's Jennis Fitness workout sessions into a habit...

When it comes to starting a new healthy habit, we all know it’s not easy. Whether you’re trying to do more Jennis Fitness workouts, eat an extra portion of veg or get to bed earlier, it can all seem to start off well but then you run out of steam. The good news is you’re not imagining it – psychologists agree developing a new habit is tricky. Indeed, they’ve spent decades studying how they work.

It takes an average of 66 days for a new health behaviour to become a habit

Okay, so how do you form a new habit?

Right, here’s the science bit. To create a new habit, your brain needs to develop a mental link between an action – for example doing an extra Jennis Fitness workout – and a particular situation, like early morning.

To strengthen that mental link, or neural pathway, you need to repeat the action often and over a period of time, often months, according to psychologists at University College London .

So, for an early morning Jennis workout, every time you get out of bed, change into your kit and crack on with your reps, this neural pathway strengthens. Eventually, early morning turns into an automatic cue to exercise. Not bad, eh?

Try these tips to help you develop a new habit:

1. Give yourself plenty of time

You may have read that 21 days is the magic number to setting a new habit in stone, but that theory has been debunked – so don’t stop too soon! Instead, a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology reported that it takes an average of 66 days for a new health behaviour to become a habit. That’s 66 days of repeating the behaviour, and yep, it was the same number for men and women, young and old – so no excuses! But that number is an average – for some people in the study, habit change took longer. Up to 254 days in one case…

2. Aim to exercise at the same time of day

People who always work out at the same time of day – for example during their lunch break or after work – tend to exercise more often, according to a 2019 US study . It’s thought the consistency makes it easier to turn an exercise routine into habit.

It’s best to make one small change at a time

3. Start simple

Don’t go all out and try to overhaul your health all at once. For example, trying to switch up your diet, exercise daily, cut out booze and drink more water all at the same time is likely to end in failure, according to the experts. Plus, it could put you off trying again in the future. Instead, it’s best to make one small change at a time, according to a 2012 study in the British Journal of General Practice . So, whether that’s eating an extra piece of fruit or adding reps to your Jennis Fitness routine, start small, and make sure you log those small goals on your Jennis Weekly Planner – and celebrate the wins you make along the way.

4. Don’t worry if your exercise routine goes out of the window at weekends

A 2011 study in the journal Psychology, Health & Medicine found that you’re more likely to make new habits during a normal, bog-standard working week. On the other hand, it can be harder to stick to your habits at weekends and while on holiday: researchers think it’s because your normal day-to-day cues to trigger the new healthy behaviour are no longer around – which puts on hold healthy habits. Once back in their working week, people in the study were back to normal. So be kind to yourself if you do let things slide, and hang on till Monday.

5. Write it down

Finally, if you want to make an exercise goal into a habit, it’s a good idea to write it down. With that one simple act, you are 42% more likely to achieve it, according to a 2015 US study – and apparently it’s all to do with the way your brain stores that information you’ve written down.

To help you out, the Jennis Fitness planner has been designed to help you set goals and write down your workouts in advance.

Find out more about Jessica Ennis-Hill's fitness coaching app, Jennis Fitness

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