Building Muscle: The Best Way to Get (and Stay) in Shape

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As the saying goes, old habits die hard. According to a new study at Iowa University, the same might be said about a health and exercise habit. Sure, lifting heavy weights is good and all, and we are all about getting in that extra set or rep, but new findings show that the habit of going to the gym in the first place might be more important than what you actually do while you’re there. 

According to the study, “The trick is making exercise a habit that is hard to break.” 

We know, easier said than done, but assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State, Alison Phillips, suggests that you create cues in order to help increase your frequency of gym trips. She also suggests that the action of going to the gym is more important than what you do when you actually get to the gym. 

“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,” Phillips mentions in the study.

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Cues can be different depending on personal preference. While some use their morning alarm as a cue, others find the end of a work day to be a suitable cue to go to the gym. Cues, just like habits, take time to make concrete, but when they are in place, they are hard to break.

Despite the usual saying that it takes 21 days to create a habit, the habit of exercise may be a little different. Rebecca Woll, the manager of personal training at Equinox, told Health that health habits usually take up to six weeks, corresponding with how long it takes to see results from going to the gym.

Phillips however, stresses that the study does not prove a right or wrong way to create a habit, or a right or wrong way to get in shape. Instead, the study demonstrates that cues could aid in initial gym motivation and interest. The habit or cue forming is more of a way to gain confidence in the process, which acts as personal motivation and helps you feel comfortable in the gym.

CrossFit members warm up by jumping rope

Jumping rope at a gym|Source: iStock

After a cue is gained, there is not a limit to where the habit needs to take place. “This study shows that you don’t have to be afraid of trying new things. You can have an instigation habit and try new types of exercise without worrying about losing the habit,” Phillips said.

The study sheds light not on personal preferences therefore, but rather informs people of how forming an exercise habit can help them gain confidence and a feeling of belonging at the gym — or anywhere they’re working out.

Trying to get to the gym? Make exercise a habit that is hard to break. Pick a cue that works for you, and get motivated. Don’t want to go at it alone? Health suggests finding a friend to work out with. And as the study shows, once cues are created, use other activities such as outdoor sports or fun games to create a workout environment that feels more like an excuse for fun. 

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