The benefits of exercise are well documented, but it can difficult to make time to hit the gym. But when developing a good workout schedule, is it more important to focus on forming habits on how you exercise, or habits that make you decide to exercise?
According to ISU health psychologist L. Alison Phillips, it's the latter. She says strong patterns that prompt you to initiate exercise are key to frequent workouts.
Hey study, published in the journal Health Psychology, shows the less people have to think about whether they should exercise, the stronger their exercise habit.
"So for example if I reach the end of the work day and it's my habit to then go to the gym, I automatically decide to go exercise at the gym without having to consider it. Without thinking about what I'd rather be doing," says Phillips.
The month-long study had 118 healthy adults report daily on their exercise in an electronic diary. Participants recorded if they worked out that day, and also on the activity's length and intensity.
Additionally, at the beginning and end of the month subjects filled out a survey on how natural it was to get their sweat on by rating a series of statements on a 1-5 scale. Statements included, "Deciding to exercise is something I do without thinking," and "Deciding to exercise is something I do without having to consciously remember."
The results showed past frequency is the only predicator of whether someone will choose to exercise in the future, and also that the method of exercise in the past doesn't influence future frequency.
While this may seem obvious, Phillips says it's worth testing since most psychology research often determines whether common knowledge is accurate. She points out when people try to start a consistent workout schedule, emphasis often centers on repeating the same exercise during a series of weeks and months.
"The findings show that that's maybe not the best way to go about it," Phillips says. "People can choose a different activity every time they exercise and still form an instigation habit and therefore still continue exercising. So you don't have to do the same boring routine over and over and over again, even though that's what some interventions promote."
If you want to start building exercise into your life, Phillips recommends setting yourself up for success. Perhaps begin by buying comfortable workout clothes, scheduling a specific gym time or signing up for a class, and don’t aim too high too fast.
"There is going to be an initial period where it is not a habit and you have to repeat the behavior," she says. "Pick something as enjoyable as possible—start with walking. Outside is always best. Being in nature is a good thing."