The science of creating new health and fitness habits

hab∙it; n. 1. actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance; 2. an established disposition of the mind or character; 3. customary manner or practice

Behavioural change is hard.

So hard, in fact, that there’s an entire sub-discipline of psychology devoted to studying how best to develop new habits (as well as eventually ridding ourselves of the old).

What those studies tell us, in a nutshell, is that we’re doing it all wrong. Making grandiose resolutions, setting unattainable goals and generally, adopting an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. A mindset that ultimately leads to yo-yo dieting and empty February gyms.

If you’re looking to increase the odds of making those new health and fitness habits ‘stick’ try the following:


new health and fitness habits

1. Choose a single, small habit to adopt. Practice it daily until it’s no longer a chore. This might take a week. It might take a month. Commit 100% to it’s practice. Remind yourself that you can do anything for a week or two. Once you’ve mastered it, choose another single, small habit to adopt. The trick is to retain the first habit while cultivating the second. And so on.

2. Associate that habit with contextual cues. Do it at the same time of day. Or in the same place. Use something to trigger it’s occurrence. For example, set your workout clothes out the night before. Put them on as soon as you get up. The clothes are your contextual reminder to head to the gym.

3. Reward yourself immediately. Humans are driven by positive rewards. The more immediate the reward, the stronger its effect on the likelihood that you’ll repeat the behaviour. Note that this doesn’t mean you need to buy yourself a pair of Fluevogs every time you successfully hit the gym.  Try creating a ‘star’ chart. Once you’ve earned 10 stars, treat yourself to something special; a book, a manicure, movie night with a friend. Just make sure the reward doesn’t undermine the new habit; i.e. a piece of chocolate cake isn’t a great reward for successfully eating 5 servings of fruit and vegetables 😉

4. Regularly reflect on your progress and adjust your approach, if necessary. For example, if eating 8 servings of fruits and vegetables a day is the habit you’re trying to create, yet after a week or two of practice you only ever manage to eat 5, change your target habit to what you’re capable of repeatedly doing. Chances are those 5 servings are significantly greater than the 1-2 you were eating before. And once you’ve mastered this simplified version of the habit you’ll be ready to tackle the habit in its entirely.

5. Share your practice with others. Tell people what you’re intending to do and why. Enlist their support. Find an accountability tribe (in real life or online) and check in daily. Research shows keeping behavioural change a secret significantly reduces the likelihood of the new health and fitness habit ‘sticking’, thereby accounting for the popularity and success rates of group weight loss programs and exercise classes.

Are there any particular new health and fitness habits you’re looking to adopt in 2015?



  1. Great tips! There was a story on NPR today that touched on the “contextual” aspect — how environmental triggers make such a difference, like if you are quitting smoking, avoid the doorway where you usually take your smoke break to avoid that urge. I’m a big fan of star charts and still have a page of star stickers in my desk drawer from the days I was using it to establish an exercise routine!
    Coco recently posted…Come Look Out My WindowMy Profile

    • I LOVE star charts! I have a client who keeps a multi-coloured one; different colours for strength and cardio workouts as well as days when her eating was on point. It’s a great visual reward for a week’s good work!

  2. Great tips. Number five can be especially helpful. Once we fill others in on our plan, we’ve ratcheted up our commitment a notch. No one likes to lose face. 🙂
    Carrie Rubin recently posted…My Social Media FailMy Profile

  3. I KNOOOOOW I need to.
    I know some tricks.
    I STILL do not drink enough water.
    at all 🙂
    Carla recently posted…2015’s word is silence.My Profile

  4. great tips! When I first started your fitness program, I gave myself a $1 for every workout. At the end of the program, I had enough to buy a new bathing suit. It was good motivation!
    Stephanie Robbins recently posted…Maximizing YouTube Videos for Affiliate MarketingMy Profile

  5. I like these ideas! Behavior change is so fascinating–I especially like the CBSM approach (interesting stuff, if you haven’t already looked into it!).
    Sagan recently posted…Are you a blogger, writer, or business owner? You need to read this.My Profile

  6. I like the reward system you mentioned in your article. I do the star reward system for my 5 year old son already and it works great. I never thought about doing a reward jar for myself though. Great article.
    Kat recently posted…12 Best Home Remedies for WhiteheadsMy Profile


  1. […] The science of creating new health and fitness habits […]

  2. […] and Disordered Eating – Run Pretty The Three Worst Ways to Lose Weight – Wildly Fit The science of creating new health and fitness habits – […]