How Habits Form
We all have them. Some good, some bad, some functional. Ever wondered how habits form? And how long it takes to form a habit? To move it from a conscious choice made in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, and ingrain it as an automated behavior in the basal ganglia–deep within the brain?
It depends on several factors, but the umbrella view is that the formation of an automatic behavior takes a little over two months. The good news is, this applies to the formation of good habits as well as bad habits. Good habits like eating better and exercising more. Let’s look at that in more depth.
Replacing Bad Habits With Good Habits
Life is demanding. Oftentimes, at the end of a long day at work, the temptation of a glass of wine or sugary treat is hard to resist. If this is the case often enough, boom! You’ve formed a habit! From cue to craving to response to reward, you’ve come to associate 5 o’clock with the pleasure of a not-so-good for you reward. A quick fix that is detrimental to your longer term goal of looking and feeling your best. Don’t beat yourself up, though. There’s a biological reason for this.
Pleasurable habits trigger the release of dopamine
One of the four “feel-good” hormones; serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin comprising the other three, dopamine is released when we experience something pleasurable. That induced pleasure can be self-defeating, however, as in the case of overindulging in alcohol or food, shopping or gambling.
Fortunately for us, dopamine can also be released during other pursuits. Activities that include meditation and massage, and enjoying the out-of-doors and exercising, for example. Four activities that complement each other quite nicely!
Replace the Bad with the Good
So you don’t have to miss out on that dopamine spike. Not at all! You just have to consciously (at first) make a different choice when the clock strikes five. Choose a different way to kickstart that release. Let the end of a workday signal the start of self-care instead of self-sabotage.
Take baby steps at first. So you don’t feel overwhelmed. Decide to walk to the store to grab that pint of ale or ice-cream. Then, a few days later, decide to walk to a park and forego the errand entirely! Stress will melt away as you breathe in fresh air and enjoy the sounds of nature all around—and what’s more, you’ll be ramping up your cardiovascular fitness.
Hit the Ground Walking
Walking is a great way to ease into becoming healthier. To replace bad habits with good ones. A daily 30-minute walk is proven to increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, reduce body fat, and boost muscle power and endurance. Your blood pressure and heart rate will slow down, and production of stress hormones like cortisol will decrease.
Best of All—You’ll Feel Better!
Emotionally and physically. While the payoff for your changed behavior will take a week or two to evidence itself in improved vitality, fitness, and appearance, the feeling of self-control becomes evident in just a few days.
And that’s empowering. Creating momentum and increasing willpower. When the going gets tough, reminding yourself that everything worthwhile takes a certain amount of footwork—all puns intended—will help keep you on track.
In conclusion, I’d like to leave you with an analogy I’ve found helpful.
Getting in the habit of working out is a little like the near-mandatory “habit” of working for a paycheck. You punch the clock for two weeks or more before receiving the money you earned, and pay taxes on it to boot!
But Every Iota of This Work is For You!
Read more about habits on Psychology Today: Habit Formation
Bone up on the basal ganglia at Nature: The Role of Basal Ganglia in Habit Formation
Stress hormones aren’t always bad. Find out when/how right here at Kardio with Karen: A Trinity of Exercise Tips
BIO: Based in Santa Barbara, CA, Karen Robiscoe is a certified Corrective Exercise Specialist and personal trainer through NASM. DBA Kardio with Karen, she is additionally certified as a Group X instructor and Spin teacher with Fitour, a licensed Livestrong Cancer Survivors instructor by YMCA, and a fully accredited Aquatics teacher with AEA.