Think You Need Guilt to Exercise? Try Cues

So you really don't want to slip on your running shoes, or pack your bag for the gym. But did you know there's an even bigger way than guilt to get yourself going?

According to new research, cues are what often motivate us to get out on the road. Whether you exercise after work or first thing in the morning, right before lunch or going out for a few drinks with friends, the circumstances around when you exercise are what make it a habit, if you do it on a steady basis.

 I'm an early morning runner (used to go out around 5, often when it was still dark) and if it's morning, and I've just woken up, I know it's time to put on the sneakers.

The trick, you see, is to make exercise a habit.  Habits are harder 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, reports.

“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,” say researchers. “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.”

Instigation is a fancy word for "cue."

For example, Alison Phillips, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State, says many people exercise after work. The end of the work day presents their cue to drive to the gym and work out 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 added. 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.

 So next time you want to go home and relax after work, think about going to the gym instead.  As if.  But the longer you do it, the more it becomes a habit and who knows?  You just might not feel like you've had a full day -- I know I do -- unless you've exercised. 


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