New Study Finds How Long It Really Takes To Establish A Gym Habit

Developing a consistent workout routine is going to take some commitment, according to new data.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal, discovered the amount of time it may take to establish a gym habit is probably longer than you’d like ― around six months, according to the research.

The study, which was led by researchers at Caltech, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania, explored habit formation through machine learning tools that tracked the behaviors of thousands of people.The study also measured how long it takes for healthcare workers to develop a hand-washing practice; comparatively, it only took a few weeks for people to do it regularly. In other words, not all habit formation timelines are created equal.

“I think there are some habits that are more automatic and then some that take more effort. And I think exercise is one of those that take more effort,” said Jamie Shapiro, a professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, who is not affiliated with the study.

For the fitness portion of the study, researchers tracked the gym badge swiping patterns of 30,000 people who went to the fitness chain, 24 Hour Fitness, over the course of four years. The results showed that it takes roughly half a year for people to establish a consistent gym habit.

According to Colin F. Camerer, the director of the T&C Chen Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience at Caltech and an author of the study, researchers measured “how well a person’s gym attendance can be predicted from a long list of variables,” including the time lag between visits, their past gym history, how many months in a row they went, and more. The authors considered gym-going an established habit if they could predict which days of the week the subjects would go to the gym based on the data they collected from all the variables they measured.

“In our data, how often people go and whether they go predictably are different,” said Camerer. “On average, they go 22% of the days — about one to two days per week. To have a habit means [we can] predict what those one or two days are likely to be. If we can’t predict which days you go, then we define that as not having a habit.”

For example, the time between gym visits played a role in habit formation for 76% of study participants. The longer the amount of time between gym visits, the less likely someone was to go back to the gym. Additionally, 69% of people were likely to go to the gym on the same days each week.

“These findings seem to align with previous research that developing a habit is complex and takes time,” Jaclyn Maher, an assistant professor of kinesiology at UNC Greensboro who was not associated with the study, told HuffPost. “At the very least, these findings (and others) suggest that the old adage that it takes 21 days to form a habit is simply a myth.”

If you want to create a gym habit, you have to consistently work on it for months, not weeks, she added. Below, experts offer some advice on how to find movement you love and how to stick to it.

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To create a fitness habit, experts say you should find a workout you like, whether that’s a group workout class or a daily outdoor walk.

To create a fitness habit, do a workout that fits in with your life and interests.

Just because some people can commit to a gym habit in six months doesn’t mean the same will happen for you — it could take you a longer amount of time or a shorter amount of time.

“There are so many variables that go into someone’s behavior,” Shapiro said.

As mentioned above, your previous gym history could impact your ability to make fitness a habit, along with factors like how close you live to the gym, if you have an ample amount of free time and your familial obligations.

“All of that is going to go into predicting whether it takes three months, six months or a year to make the gym a habit,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said a good way to help make this a habit is by integrating fitness into your lifestyle. What does that mean? Take account of the amount of time you can commit to the gym — do you have kids or grandkids to take care of? Do you work more than one job? Also, think about where the gym is in relation to your home. Is it a far drive? Do you have to take public transit?

Think about what can realistically and conveniently fit into your life and work to incorporate that gym-going experience or, potentially, at-home workout regimen into your life. So, if you don’t like taking public transit, opt for a gym within walking distance of your home instead of a subway ride away.

What’s more, it’s important to find a workout you enjoy. “Developing a habit will be much easier if individuals focus on behaviors that bring them joy and they find pleasant,” Maher said.

“I encourage people to think about what will keep them going. Is it a group class? Is it personal training? Do they want to watch a favorite show while they’re on that elliptical machine?” Shapiro said.

This is an individual choice, and there is no wrong answer. If you don’t like going to a physical gym, you can try hiking or biking instead. If you don’t enjoy workout classes on YouTube, sign up for that local fitness class.

“It’s so individualized, which is why it’s important for people to think, ‘What’s going to work for me to keep me going for a long time?’” she added.

All in all, you shouldn’t create a gym routine that is out of your comfort zone, far away or unenjoyable — you’ll have a low amount of motivation to actually go if that’s the case.

Put your workouts on your calendar.

You know how you mark down meetings, appointments and parties in your calendar? Shapiro said you should be doing the same for your workouts.

“I think planning, in general, is extremely important ― looking at your calendar and really seeing what days and times work for the gym in advance,” Shapiro said.

She recommends looking at your calendar on a Sunday and marking down when you can go to the gym that week. Additionally, Shapiro said it’s important to plan for barriers like travel or days filled with meetings and look for other ways or times to exercise on those days.

And don’t feel discouraged if it takes a few tries to establish your gym habit.

“Don’t think that forming a habit will be a quick process. It is important to recognize from the beginning that developing a habit is something that will take time, especially for exercise,” Maher said.

She said it’s essential to not only commit to the exercise habit but also to create contextual cues that can help you develop the habit.

Habits develop through the repeated pairing of contextual [cues] in one’s environment with a behavioral response,” Maher noted.

Like associating Tuesday night with that 45-minute aerobics class you sign up for week after week. Or associating your filled-up water bottle or a certain pump-up song with a visit to the gym.

“If you stay consistent with the behavior and the contexts in which you engage in the behavior, you are helping to accelerate the process of developing those context-behavior associations,” she noted.

These associations will encourage you to work out, whether you actively realize it or not.

“So much of our daily lives is rooted [in] conscious deliberation and reflection. If we can make the act of going to the gym or exercising more automatic, it can reduce many of the cognitive barriers that can prevent us from enacting those behaviors in the first place,” Maher said.

She added if you can use these tools to make your workout behavior automatic — a thing you do at a certain time or place — you’ll be well on your way to creating that fitness habit.