That was the gist of a recent article in the Toronto Star’s Weekend Life section. It spoke about the growing list of scientific evidence showing that exercise “is the much needed vaccine to prevent chronic disease and premature death.” While you might say that doesn’t exactly qualify as ‘news’ (who among us didn’t already know that exercise was good for you?) it might be news to some. The article went on to cite the disturbing statistic that “only 15% of Canadian adults are meeting the recommended guideline of 150 minutes of exercise a week.”
Why is there a disconnect between what we actually do and what we know is good for us? The article suggests that a small part of the answer relates a cultural desire for quick fixes that makes it easier for patients and their doctors to focus on cures instead of disease prevention. The bigger reason, it said, has to do with the fact that simply telling someone to change existing habits doesn’t offer enough guidance or direction on how to actually do that. People tend to need support, and maybe even step-by-step instructions, on how to go about changing long-term habits.
Psychologists are experts at helping people change. It is a big part of what we do. We know all about tapping into motivation and willpower, and about how bad habits can persist when we don’t replace them with intentions to change and the actions required to bring that change about. In particular, psychologists know about our built-in habit mechanisms and how to tap into them to bring about lasting change.
Built-in habit mechanisms? Yes, we all possess a brain that frees up processing power by converting complicated behavioural actions into routines and habits that we can perform with barely any thought. Consider driving a car as an example. It’s a highly complex act that many of us are able to do almost automatically. The brain builds the routines and, when we sit behind the wheel those routines come up to the surface and we just drive. Knowing how to use that habit mechanism makes it easier to create new routines, like exercising regularly.
Say you want to walk for 30 minutes, three times a week. The habit mechanism is already in place to do the heavy lifting. All you really need to do with your conscious effort is to set the stage so the mechanism works for you instead of against you. This might take the form of setting the goal of walking by:
- Scheduling a 30 minute ‘Walking’ appointment in your calendar, with a reminder, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
- Writing “I want to walk for 30 minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday” on a piece of paper and placing that paper in a spot that you see every day.
- Place your running shoes beside your front door.
Although none of these acts requires much effort on their own, the habit mechanism magnifies their impact by prompting you to take further actions toward walking every time you look at your note or see the shoes by the door. The act of scheduling the time to exercise also pushes you to follow through because it reminds you that walking is a priority in your day.
Because the work of prioritizing the activity, getting the shoes out and finding the time to walk has already been done, the only thing you have to do when your ‘Walking’ appointment arrives is to put your shoes on and step outside. Once you’re outside and walking, the physical and mental benefits of exercise make it easier to continue until you’ve hit your 30-minute goal.
The key to changing behaviour is creating new routines. We can increase our potential for change by mapping out the various steps that will lead us toward the desired routine AND by creating cues that minimize the effort needed to take each step.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
Shift Cognitive Therapy Oakville is a psychology practice that helps people learn to change habits and behaviour.