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How Long Does it Really Take to Develop an Exercise Habit?

Over the course of my life, I’ve heard a wide range of opinions on how long it takes to develop an exercise habit. Anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months. But what’s the truth? How many days or weeks in a row do we have to stick to our exercise regimen before it becomes a habit? And does it being a habit really make it easier?

The 21 Days Myth

Back in the 1950’s a plastic surgeon by the name of Maxwell Maltz began noticing a pattern in his patients. Whether it was a nose job or an amputation, it seemed to take his patients about 21 days to adapt to the change. After further observation, in 1960 Maltz published a book on this and other observations he had made. The book, Psycho-Cybernetics, became a best seller and Maltz the recognized authority on habitual behaviors.

To be fair to Maltz, he did state clearly that 21 days was a minimum. Unfortunately, that was ignored and ever since then, people have mistakenly believed that it takes about 3 weeks to form a habit. Too bad this is completely wrong and it has led many people to give up prematurely. They feel that it should get easier after 3 weeks, and just be ‘something they do every day’. In fact, it takes much longer than 3 weeks, especially for something that’s hard or physically uncomfortable like exercise.

So How Long Does it Really Take to Develop an Exercise Habit?

We had to wait almost 60 years for that answer. In 2009 Philippa Lally, a psychology researcher at University College London and her team completed a 12-week study with 96 subjects. Each subject chose a new habit to form. For some, it was something simple, like drinking more water and for others, it was more challenging, like adopting a new exercise regimen.

Not surprisingly, the study found that the amount of time it takes to form a habit varies with the person and the difficulty of the task. The average time to develop a new habit was 66 days or over two months, and times varied anywhere from 18 days to 254 days, or over 8 months!

Does it Get Easier?

It seems intuitive that a very difficult and uncomfortable habit like exercising regularly will be on the upper end of that scale. We should expect it to take months, not weeks. But does it really get easier? Well, sort of.

A habit is defined as “a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously”.

Can we exercise subconsciously? Of course not. Working out, and all the preparation that goes with it, is always going to be a conscious decision. I’ve been working out religiously at least five times a week for 37 years. I’ve never yet had a ‘subconscious’ workout.

That said, your body gets used to it and even comes to crave it.

Habit, or Addiction?

Exercise does become a habit in the sense that we fall into a routine. We tend to work out at the same time every day, do much the same exercises, and find ourselves happier when we improve. In that sense, it does become a habit, but it’s never easy and it certainly isn’t subconscious.

On the other hand, if I don’t work out for 3 consecutive days I start to get irritable. My theory is that I’m actually going through dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin withdrawal. My brain is used to getting regular hits of these hormones through exercise and it responds negatively when the levels of these chemicals start to drop.

What’s Your Point, Will?

I wrote this post because I know that many people push through on their exercise routines, waiting for it to become a habit and therefore get easier. But the truth is it never gets easier. Working out is hard. It’s always going to be hard, but if you do it long enough you do get addicted. Other fitness enthusiasts I’ve talked to say the same thing. It’s not so much that we want to go to work out, as that we know how crappy we’re going to feel if we don’t.

So my point? Work out long enough to get addicted. Junkie.

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Will Dove

Will is a lifelong fitness nut. He started exercising religiously at the age of 16. Now 52, he still works out 5 times per week and maintains a body fat percentage in the single digits. Will is passionate about helping others to achieve their fitness and body image goals, and believes that most people fail to achieve these goals, not through a lack of self-discipline, but through a simple lack of knowledge.