Study unlocks secrets to developing a workout habit

A large new study has found that the secret sauce to sticking to your workout routine includes only a few key ingredients.

The experiment involved more than 60,000 US gym-goers who participated in various four-week programs designed by 30 scientists from 15 different universities in the US. The goal: to get people who are already members of the gym to go regularly.

Behavioral intervention programs, conducted from March 2018 to January 2019, included text messages, emails, electronic gift cards, and websites. Each included a minimum of 455 participants.

The features prompted users to make plans that included the dates and times they would work. An automated system sent text reminders before those scheduled times, and the incentive program awarded points for each exercise, which can be redeemed for small cash rewards. The results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Katie Milkman, lead study author, said Katie Milkman, James Dinan Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Milkman said she was surprised by how difficult it was for teams to design interventions that worked better than a “plan, remind, reward” model.

“The programs that worked best took advantage of all of these things, plus something else,” she said.

One challenge became clear: Developing an exercise habit can be easier than maintaining it.

45 percent of the interventions significantly increased weekly visits to the gym during the four weeks, but only 8 percent produced measurable lasting changes in behavior after the intervention period ended.

“Getting people to exercise more is the first step, and this study shows that it is possible,” said Margie Lachman, director of the Boston Royal Center for Active Lifestyle Interventions at Brandeis University, who was not involved in the research. The challenge is getting people to stick with it.”

The higher intervention offered small rewards for returning to the gym after missed workouts. The top performing program paid people 22 cents per visit to the gym. If they miss one day, they get an extra 9 cents on their next visit, as long as they only miss one.

“Everyone talks about not breaking the streak, but it’s inevitable. We’ve found that if you break it more than once, it’s much more difficult to get back on track than if you just miss a day,” Milkman said.

How do you make it last?

Another feature that boosted exercise habits was what Milkman calls “temptation pooling.” This includes allowing people to only do something they like while working out, such as watching a show or listening to a favorite song or audiobook.

Most of the high-performance interventions were things that many people could do on their own, which means that the research yielded real-world advice that nearly anyone could use to start an exercise habit.

“Make a plan. Set calendar reminders in your phone or computer. Just as we send people text reminders, associate exercise with temptation and find ways to make yourself not miss two in a row,” Milkman said. When we removed the support structures, people retained only about 30 percent of their habits.”

Marc Beauchamp, professor of exercise and health psychology at the University of British Columbia, said previous research has highlighted the important role social structures play in people’s ability to hold on to behavior changes.

Beauchamp, who was not involved in the new research, said: “Exercise is a very complex behavior, and inexpensive stimulus-type interventions that provide marginal changes in behavior can have major effects. But it’s not just about initiating a behavior. That social structures reinforce it. When people feel socially connected to exercise, they are more likely to do it in the long term.”

“Everyone does that”

One successful intervention included a feature that lets users know that more Americans are exercising than ever before and getting fit is a growing trend.

Just this simple communication that ‘everyone is doing it and they are doing it more than they used to’ had a huge impact,” Milkman said. “This type of intervention plays on different aspects of psychology than did the basic program of planning, reminding, and rewarding.”

For people who start their workout routines from scratch, it’s also important to start with small, manageable goals and build on them, said Lachman, of Brandeis.

“If you set goals and then achieve them, it pays off,” she said. “But if you set goals that are difficult to achieve right away, you will just feel bad and disappointed about it.”

She added that exercise should be something you enjoy, too: “If you don’t like it, you won’t.”

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