Applying “The Power of Habit”: Making exercise a “keystone habit”

Want to know the secret to excellent dental health? Reading. Yep, reading. Over the last several years of grad school, I realized that my pleasure reading time was near non-existent thanks to the zillions of academic articles in my life. So, I started keeping a book (or lately, ipad) near the bathroom sink. Every day, thanks to the 2-minute timer on my electric Oral B, I get at least four solid minutes of reading for fun*. And usually more since I floss and sometimes, if the book is good, brush for an extra minute or two. Two birds, one stone, one healthy routine. A routine that I find myself missing greatly, indeed craving, when brushing away from home.

This summer I borrowed “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg from the library. After reading it, I realized how powerful seemingly innocuous habits and routines can be. The brushing/reading routine? Undoubtedly a positive, cavity-fighting habit. Without realizing, I help “wire” my brain to expect the “reward” of reading every time I engaged in the habit of brushing. (Read the book to learn more about the cue-habit-reward cycle.)

One element of the book that really stood out to me revolved around “keystone habits” or those habits that, once ingrained, set off a chain reaction of other behaviors and hold them in place. For instance, Duhigg described how people who exercise habitually also tend to eat well, have better overall health, do well at work, etc. even though they don’t make a point of those other things. The single habit they focus on is exercise. (Of course, keystone habits can also be severely detrimental as in substance abuse or smoking, etc.)

With this in mind, I decided to make exercise a “keystone habit” and banish (forever!) my summer sausage problems. To do so, I started making helpful supporting habits including:

Photo credit.

1. Making it easy to exercise. Habits become habits because we don’t think about them. We just do them. So, I’ve looked for ways to make exercising easy. I keep my gym bag and shoes together by the door. My favorite gym outfits stay clean and on top of the laundry basket. The online gym schedule stays open on my browser so I can quickly check on classes. These little things make it easy for me to throw on clothes and walk out the door. When I worked a more 8-5 schedule, I kept a gym bag packed with clothes, shoes, water and protein bar, and took it to the office with me so hitting the gym was just something I did on the way home from work. Easy.

2. Scheduling it. Another way I make exercising easy is by building time into my schedule. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing Tuesday at 10 a.m. because I know that that’s Zumba with Jen time. It’s on the calendar. When I lived in cubicle land, a couple friends and I would build in morning and afternoon walks. In our 15 minute breaks, we could do a mile around the block and keep up with office gossip. (Mmmhmm.)

3. Letting all movement “count.” Did you know that housework can burn the same amount of calories as walking on a treadmill? So I let it “count” towards a day’s exercise. Movement is movement, and so if I’m gardening, vacuuming, or washing the car, it gets noted as exercise.

And another thing, I count exercise in minute-increments. If I do a 5-min
dance attack, that counts. Photo credit.

4. Keeping score. And I do mean noted. For the last several years, I’ve kept an exercise diary/spreadsheet with dates, activities, and minutes completed (color coded by week, yes I’m crazy). This has allowed me to see when/why my activities have come to a screeching halt (cough, vacation, cough, writing manuscripts). But it also serves as a motivational tool. For example, thanks to my spreadsheet, I know I exercised 29 of 30 days in the month of August!

5. Creating options. Unless I’m with a trainer or in a group class, I find gym time oh so tedious. So I actively find ways to make exercise fun and create options for what I’m doing. Namely, this means trying new exercise classes, creating new music mixes, having a host of exercise DVDs at home, walking the dog, and dancing. Since I work at home, I have the luxury of adding “dance attacks” to my daily schedule. Minimally, I play a song from youtube and do some embarrassing but calorie burning boogieing in my office. It gets the blood pumping and makes me smile. Having all of these options makes it easy to find a type of exercise to do no matter the weather or my mood.

Any other hot tips for making exercise a habit?


* During the throes of coursework in my first two years, I admit I kept academic articles by the sink. Sad, but true. Do note it’s difficult to highlight and brush at the same time!
** I’m writing this from memory, so do read the book for more specifics!

Other health/fitness posts:
– Feeling like a summer sausage
– Magical thinking doesn’t make my pants fit: Developing a fitness plan
– Braving Bikram: What I learned about hot yoga, day 1
– Dialogue of mad muscles
– Mad muscle redux
– Fitness class characters

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