Forming a Physical Activity Habit

Scientists in the fields of psychology and neuroscience agree that behaviours are a result of both conscious and non-conscious processes1,2. We know that someone’s intention to be physically active (a conscious process) doesn’t fully predict their resulting behaviour and therefore it is presumable that non-conscious processes, like a physical activity habit and/or physical activity identity, can help to explain the missing piece3. Non-conscious processes can also contribute to preserving time that may have been allocated to self-regulatory strategies, such as planning and self-monitoring. In this blog, we will dive a bit deeper into what exactly a physical activity habit is.

When you hear about a habit, likely the first thing that comes to mind is that a habit is a behaviour you do regularly. Perhaps someone might say they are in the habit of going to bed at 11pm and waking up at 7am every night and morning. But when it comes to the realm of health psychology, a habit is actually a learned and automatic association between a cue and a behaviour 4. Basically, this means that when some sort of cue presents in your day, you will have an automatic tendency or impulse to enact a behaviour. A habit is developed over time where a certain cue is repeatedly followed by a behaviour, and over time the cue starts to elicit an automatic impulse to enact that behaviour. For example, every morning upon waking, without putting much thought into it, you might immediately go to brush your teeth. This is a result of brushing your teeth upon waking over and over again (as well as perhaps many reminders from your dentist!).

Frequent instances of cues that are followed by behaviours will result in stronger habits.

Additional factors that have shown to be important in developing cue-behaviour associations are 1) the complexity of the behaviour, 2) the environment, and 3) the level of enjoyment in the activity5.

So with regards to physical activity, we can probably think of certain types of exercise, for example playing certain sports or weight lifting,  that might be more complex for some individuals compared to others. That said, after an individual is taught how to do a certain exercise and performs it several times, that exercise will probably become easier. We can also think of certain environments that we are more or less comfortable exercising in. For example, some individuals may prefer exercising outdoors for the fresh air while others prefer the gym so they can predictably avoid weather perturbations. You may remember from one of our earlier blog posts that people are generally more likely to be physically active if they enjoy the exercise they are doing rather than if they’re just doing it because they think it’s good for them. Well, it turns out, doing exercise that you enjoy is also important for developing physical activity habits! This is because behaviours that are unenjoyable will impose motivational push-back (thoughts about not really enjoying the behaviour before enacting it). Negative thoughts can break the learning sequence, making it much harder to form any type of cue-behaviour response. As a result, we will be dependent on motivational will-power to do the behaviour, despite these negative thoughts.

You may be wondering just how frequently you have to experience a cue-behaviour until it develops into a habit. Well, research has shown that in new gym-goers, it took about 6-weeks of exercising 4-times a week to develop a physical activity habit5.

Taking things a bit further, it’s proposed that physical activity habit formation occurs through two phases: instigation and execution. This is because exercise itself is somewhat of a complex behaviour that takes a good chunk of time and effort to execute (compared to brushing your teeth for example). So for the case of developing a physical activity habit, we are more so referring to the instigation component, as this is more automatic, rather than the execution component, which requires a bit more conscious control6. Basically developing an exercise instigation habit means we have developed a tunnel vision towards enacting an intention for physical activity, which shields us from opposing automatic tendencies7.

So what steps can we take in developing a physical activity habit? Think of a cue that you can plan to regularly link with being active. For example, you might choose a cue of eating dinner to indicate that you should go for an evening walk. You want the cue to be something that happens regularly and occurs prior to when you want to be exercising to maximize the cue-behaviour learning. The more consistent you are active following this cue, the more likely you will develop a physical activity habit. The next piece is to think about the right type of physical activity for you, it should be an exercise that isn’t too difficult (although if you are motivated to learn something new that is fine as well, just make sure to break it down into to easy steps in the beginning), it should be something you enjoy doing, and choose an environment that you know you will feel comfortable to regularly perform the exercise.


  1. Bargh JA, Ferguson MJ. Beyond behaviorism: On the automaticity of higher mental processes. Psychological Bulletin. 2000;126(6):925-945. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.126.6.925
  2. Heatherton TF, Wagner DD. Cognitive neuroscience of self-regulation failure. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2011;15(3):132-139. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.12.005
  3. Rhodes RE, Dickau L. Experimental evidence for the intention–behavior relationship in the physical activity domain: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology. 2012;31(6):724-727. doi:10.1037/a0027290
  4. Gardner B. A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour. Health Psychology Review. 2015;9(3):277-295. doi:10.1080/17437199.2013.876238
  5. Kaushal N, Rhodes RE. Exercise habit formation in new gym members: a longitudinal study. J Behav Med. 2015;38(4):652-663. doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9640-7
  6. Rhodes RE, Rebar AL. Physical Activity Habit: Complexities and Controversies. In: Verplanken B, ed. The Psychology of Habit. Springer International Publishing; 2018:91-109. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-97529-0_6
  7. Rhodes RE, La H, Quinlan A, Grant SJ. Enacting physical activity intention: Multi-process action control. In: Motivation and Self-Regulation in Sport and Exercise. Taylor & Francis; 2021:8-20.

Monitoring Your Progress Part 2

Moving right along to our second blog of feedback and monitoring! In our last blog post, we talked a bit about self-regulation and two strategies to enhance our self-control and the likelihood of meeting our physical activity goals. In this blog post, as previously mentioned, we will describe the proceeding two strategies.

The reality is that even if we buy home exercise equipment and leave our running shoes at the front door, there are going to be times that we still don’t follow through with our physical activity goals. For example, maybe we’re just tired from a long day at work or woke up on the wrong side of the bed for an unknown reason and just don’t feel like exercising. This is where the other two strategies come into play.

The following strategies are known as intrapsychic strategies because they help us overcome cognitive or emotional barriers that may get in the way of our pursuit of physical activity goals1. The first one is called an attention-deployment strategy which basically means we are maintaining focus on the intended actions. For example, being conscious of our temptations (i.e., just wanting to come home from work and relax on the couch) is actually beneficial because if we notice our feelings of temptation to relax and watch Netflix, we will be less likely to mindlessly enact upon them to satisfy our immediate desire.

Of course, there are times when noticing and consciously avoiding our temptations isn’t possible and this is where we can use cognitive-change strategies to reframe our undesired temptations and increase the chances of acting on behaviours that build towards our long term goals1. For example, we can think of our couch as a comfortable place to watch Netflix or we can reframe it as an item that is next to impossible to get off of once we’re on it. Another example would be in the moment asking ourselves “why” we are doing something rather than “how” we are doing it. This puts the focus of actions more towards our long-term goals.

Well there you have it, these are two intrapsychic strategies that you can employ in the moment to help you overcome temptations and impulses that thwart your physical activity goals. Recent evidence shows that interventions targeting such attention control and cognitive changes are efficacious in increasing physical activity2. Stay tuned for our next couple of blog posts where we will be discussing the reflexive processes of habit and self-identity in regards to physical activity behaviour.

*References/Further Reading

  1. Duckworth, A. L., Gendler, T. S., & Gross, J. J. (2016). Situational Strategies for Self-Control. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 35–55.

  2. Pears, S., & Sutton, S. (2021). Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) interventions for promoting physical activity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Psychology Review, 15(1), 159–184.

Monitoring Your Progress Part 1

As promised, today we will be discussing the importance of reflecting on and assessing your progress towards your physical activity goals. Basically, now that you have a plan and have started executing your plan, after a period of time you will want to check in with yourself to see how that plan is going. This process is known as self-regulation, which is broadly defined as taking action in moving towards a goal and monitoring your progress along the way1. Monitoring your progress is one of the most important strategies you can perform to stay on course2.

In our last blog we spoke about strategizing to overcome barriers that get in the way of meeting your physical activity goals. This process will help to develop self-control and involves resolving conflict between competing goals. Our example from the last blog involved resolving the conflict between motivation to exercise after work while faced with feeling hungry. Another example might be staying home to watch a recently released episode of your favourite Netflix show (short-term reward) rather than going to the gym to fulfill your long-term goal of gaining muscular strength.

There are four key strategies that we are going to describe to help you optimize your self-control3. In order to be most successful, the four strategies should be employed as early as possible upon setting your goal. The first is a situation selection strategy. This involves choosing an environment that will favour accomplishing your physical activity goals. For example, if you don’t have time to go to a gym several times a week, you could invest in a yoga mat and free weights that you can workout with at home. Another example would be agreeing with a friend or colleague that you are going to commit to exercising together on a consistent basis.

Of course there are cases where it isn’t possible to modify your environment and this is where the second strategy comes in, called situation-modification. This is where, instead of choosing a specific environment, you would modify your environment to better suit your goals. For example, you can select and organize prompts and cues that optimize your likelihood of following through with your goals. An example of this would be leaving your running shoes at the front door so they are the first thing you see when you arrive home from work and remind you that you need to get your evening jog in before settling down with Netflix. Another example might be a wearable reminds you to be active throughout the day to encourage you towards meeting your goals.

We will leave you with those two strategies to think about before we move on to the next blog to introduce the other ones. Right now would be a good time to think about how you can change or modify your environment that will help to set you up with success!

*References/Further Reading

  1. Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the Self-Regulation of Behavior. Cambridge, Univ. Press.
  2. Michie, S., Abraham, C., Whittington, C., McAteer, J., & Gupta, S. (2009). Effective techniques in healthy eating and physical activity interventions: A meta-regression. Health Psychology, 28(6), 690–701.
  3. Duckworth, A. L., Gendler, T. S., & Gross, J. J. (2016). Situational Strategies for Self-Control. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 35–55.