Developing any habit—good or bad—starts with a routine, and exercise is no exception. The trick is making exercise a habit that is hard to break. According to a new Iowa State University study, that may be easier to accomplish by focusing on cues that make going for a run or to the gym automatic.   

The study is the first to explore the importance of different habit components in predicting exercise frequency. Some interventions designed to help people start and continue exercising may focus on the execution habit, or an exact routine to follow at the gym. An instigation habit, by contrast, is a cue that prompts a person to do something automatically, like going to the gym at the end of the workday.

Dr. Alison Phillips, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State, and Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a senior lecturer in psychology at King’s College London, recruited 123 healthy adults to participate in the study. Participants were asked to rate their exercise instigation and execution habit strength. Approximately 25 percent of participants were overweight or obese, and about 5 percent reported not exercising, while nearly 50 percent said they had regularly exercised longer than 12 months. The researchers then tracked how often participants exercised over the course of the month via electronic daily diaries. 

The results of the study, published in the journal Health Psychology, suggest that it’s the instigation habit—or cues that prompt people to automatically go to the gym—that increases exercise frequency. In fact, the strength of a person’s instigation habit was the only unique predictor of exercise frequency. When participants changed their instigation habit, exercise frequency changed (for better or worse), whereas changing the type of exercise performed (an example of execution habit) didn’t change how often participants exercised.

Finding a Cue That Works

Sample Instigation Cues

Here are some sample instigation cues to offer your clients to help them create a solid exercise habit.

  • Set out exercise gear the night before to make it easier to get moving in the morning.
  • Use a favorite workout song as an alarm to trigger a morning workout.
  • Perform squats and lunges while waiting for the shower to heat up or while brushing teeth or drying hair.
  • Take 10-minute walks during mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks during the workday.
  • Instead of driving home after work (and expecting to exercise later), go straight to the gym on certain days of the week.
  • Perform crunches, push-ups or other body-weight exercises during commercial breaks while watching television.
  • Take a walk around the block instead of eating dessert or immediately cleaning up the dishes after dinner.

How can you help your clients identify appropriate cues that will help them develop an exercise habit, even when they don’t have a class or training scheduled? The first step is to encourage your clients to examine their daily routines and identify potential cues. For example, the end of the work day could present a cue to drive to the gym and exercise instead of driving home. For others, the cue may be the alarm clock going off in the morning signaling that it is time to go for a run or a bike ride. Some research suggests that it may take a month or longer of repeated behavior before a cue reliably and automatically triggers a behavior; sticking with the same time of day might help initially, Phillips says.

The most common cues used with interventions are external, she adds. But what works best might vary from person to person. Internal cues, such as a feeling that you need to move after sitting for several hours at your desk, form the strongest habits, Phillips speculates, but are harder to train in people and must develop over time.

While the study found execution habit had no effect on exercise frequency, after controlling for instigation habit, Phillips stresses it still may be an effective option for some people starting a new routine. For clients who are new to exercise or uncomfortable going to the gym, giving them the same routine to follow can help build self-confidence at the activity and being active in general. However, for others the repetitiveness of sticking to a specific routine may be detrimental.

“This study shows that you don’t have to be afraid of trying new things. You can have an instigation habit and try new types of exercise without worrying about losing the habit,” Phillips says. While it might be important for people just starting out to do the same thing to build the self-confidence that they can exercise regularly, she explains, there doesn’t seem to be any long-term benefit to doing the same workout over and over again.

“From a health perspective, we want people to engage in physical activity frequently, and so instigation habit is the type of habit to promote that to happen,” Phillips continues. “Regardless of the type of exercise you’re going to do on a particular day, if you have an instigation habit, you’ll start exercising without having to think a lot about it or consider the pros and cons.”