When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut from the kitchen counter? What did you say to your kids on the way out the door? Salad or hamburger for lunch? Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.
In the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. We’ve learned how habits form—and why they are so hard to break. As a result, we now know how to create good habits and change bad ones like never before. At the core of every habit is a neurological loop with three parts: A cue, a routine, and a reward. To understand how to create habits—such as exercise habits—you must learn to establish the right cues and rewards.
In 2002, researchers at New Mexico State University studied 266 individuals, most of whom worked out at least three times a week. What they found was that many of them had started running or lifting weights almost on a whim, or because they suddenly had free time or wanted to deal with unexpected stresses in their lives. (Pick up a copy of The Athlete’s Book of Home Remedies, Men’s Health’s newest book packed with hundreds of doctor-approved health and fitness tips!)
However, the reason they continued exercising—why it became a habit—was because of a specific cue, such as always going for a jog before breakfast, and a particular reward, such as allowing themselves to luxuriate in the shower after a workout and the neurochemicals that flooded their brains after exercising.
If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue. Some ideas: Always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or always going for a run at the same time of day. This pre-exercise trigger tells your brain, in a sense, to go into autopilot. That’s why habits feel easy, automatic: because the cue has activated a portion of our neurology—the basal ganglia—where nearly-effortless patterns are stored.
Equally, you need a clear reward—such as a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog. However, countless studies have shown that, at first, the rewards inherent in exercise—that sense of accomplishment or endorphins—aren’t enough. Though you might intellectually know you’ll enjoy working out, your neurology hasn’t “learned” that fact yet.
So to teach your brain to associate exercise with a reward, you need to give yourself something you really enjoy—such as a small piece of chocolate, a big breakfast, or 30 minutes with a favorite television show—after your workout for the first few weeks.
A food treat is counterintuitive (and counterproductive) because most people start exercising to lose weight. But the goal here is to train your brain to associate a certain cue (“It’s 5 o’clock.”) with a routine (“Three miles down!”) and a reward (“Chocolate!”)
Eventually—after a few weeks or a few months, depending on your particular brain—your neurology will start expecting the reward inherent in exercise (“It’s 5 o’clock. Three miles down! Endorphin rush!”) and you won’t need the chocolate anymore. Your brain will have learned to associate the cue (“It’s 5 o’clock”) with a pattern stored in your basal ganglia (“Three miles down!”), which unfolds almost effortlessly. (Want to power up your brain even more? Check out this list of Superfoods For Your Mind.)
And as your brain learns that this pattern delivers a reward—chocolate at first, and then endorphins—your neurology will start to crave the neurochemicals. Your brain will automatically substitute the endorphins for the chocolate. You’ll hardly even notice what’s going on.
Over time, it will become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. You won’t want the chocolate anymore. You’ll just crave the endorphins. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, will start triggering a craving for the inherent rewards to come.