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How long does it actually take for exercise to become a habit?

by Adele Rogers on Friday 28 July 2017


Have you ever heard the old wives' tale 'it takes 21 days to form a new habit'? 

21 days is achievable, right? More than a couple of weeks, less than a month. 



Well, tell that to anyone feeling down on themselves that their 6-week Boot Camp failed to convert into positive long-term change.  And, unfortunately for anyone who has tried to form a new habit, it’s actually hard as hell.   

The '21 days' tale has been lingering since the 1960’s when Doctor and Professor Maxwell Maltz wrote, ‘Happiness and success are habits. So are failure and misery. But negative habits can be changed.‘ (we love this, by the way).  

Maltz’s book Psycho-Cybernetics revolutionised the theory on habit formation, so much so, that it conceptualised the same theory used today.   

So what is a habit exactly? 

The Oxford Dictionary defines a habit as; ‘a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up’.

So, could exercise actually ever be one?

Well, whatever your goal, be it drinking more water, saving a little more money, calling your mum more often, exercising regularly, or at all - making something habitual means you’ll have to develop it as part of your routine. And luckily for us (or unluckily, depending on your perspective), research shows that it actually takes a heck of a lot longer than 21 days for new behavior to stick. 

A 2009 study found that the average time it took for a behavior to become a habit was 66 days.  

Oh boy. That’s more than three times the amount we originally signed up for when we began reading this article. 

The study asked volunteers to repeat a healthy eating, drinking or exercising behaviour of their choice and record how automated it felt on a daily basis. 

While some people turned the new behaviour into a habit at a faster rate than 66 days, others took up to 254 days! So, truth be told, the actual time it takes to form a new habit is somewhere between 2 months to 8 months. Crikey. 

Wait, wait. Before you cancel tomorrow morning’s PT session and hit the biscuit aisle, let’s take a look at what this actually means for those of us who want to develop some healthy new habits and be active more often.  

1.      This is proof that you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you don’t master a new skill within a 21-day window. It takes longer than that. Enjoy the process and find inspiration in the journey of learning. Let’s face it, as adults, we don’t get to experience that as often as we once did.  

2.      Practice makes perfect, but there’s no such thing as perfect. Making a mistake to two along the way won’t hurt you or your goal.  The same study also revealed that it didn’t affect the overall outcome when certain days were missed. Which leads to the next point; 

3.      You have permission for failure. When you do fall off the wagon, develop a strategy for bouncing back and getting back on track. Mistakes are not the be all and end all, just make sure you have a back-up plan for potential slips in the mud.  

4.      Take the pressure off. Life is already a pressure cooker without the added stress of creating new habits fast. Slow down. Take a breath. Continue.  

5.      Many small wins lead to victory. If your goal seems out of this world, it just might be. Begin with little achievable goals first, and then build on them. Once you’ve mastered repetition of a small new task, scale it up.  

6.      Celebrate variety. No two people are the same. John and Harry won’t reach the finish line at the same time, and as in every part of life, our differences should be celebrated.  

7.      Just keep trucking on. The longer you do something, the easier it will get. It’s proven to get easier. For the majority of participants, automaticity increased steadily over the days of the study.  

8.      Believe it. It’s science.  

In light of these very positive findings, we’ve decided it’s up to us to give you a little nudge in the right direction, so we’re going to reward regular training with Velocity Points*.  

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