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The 21 Day Habit Myth and Fitness

Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit? If you haven’t, search the Internet and you will find all these sites claiming that they can help you form a habit in 21 days. While in some cases that might hold true, it is certainly not the rule. There is actually research that shows actions can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to become a habit! So, if you are thinking that by exercising for 3 weeks that you are on your way to a lifestyle of healthy habits, think again (maybe).

There are many variables in turning actions into habits, including the following:
Degree of difficulty
The person involved
The importance/value of the task

How does this relate to fitness? Imagine these two scenarios.

At age 22 Christine finds herself 15 pounds heavier than what she weighed in high school. She is a little disappointed in herself for gaining weight, and though no one around her calls her ‘fat’, she still looks in the mirror and desires to burn a few pounds off. Christine was always active in high school sports and even ran track her first two years of college. She lost the ambition to continue with running, so she quit the team and has been partying for the past year with very little exercise. It has now caught up with her and the little weight-gain has her barely squeezing into her jeans. She decides to do something about it and starts to run 3 days a week before class. She also hits the gym on the weekends with some light weightlifting. She is sore from working out again for the entire first week. On week two she has to drag herself out of bed to the annoying sound of an alarm clock to make time for running. By week three Christine is waking up before her alarm clock goes off and is enjoying being back in the groove of working out again. 21 days. Habit created.

Meet Victor. At age 45 Victor weighs in at 245 pounds and his doctor is concerned about his blood sugar and cholesterol. Victor, who ironically never tried out for high school sports because he was so small, has not exercised since the required P.E. class in the 10th grade. Chronic pain, shortness of breath, troubled sleeping patterns, and fatigue all have overwhelmed him. He decides that he needs to do something about it, so he joins the Mega Club gym down the street. Victor exercises faithfully for 3 weeks, 5 days each week. He steps on the scale and sees he is down 4 pounds. But he is uncomfortable. He sweats like hell at the gym, watching kids half his age and half his weight doing half the work with amazing physiques. He has suffered three weeks without having any candy or sweets, but Lord knows he wants one. After his 3rd week of exercise and healthy eating, Victor is really trying to conjure up some motivation to stick with it. 21 days. Habit not yet created.

See the difference?

That does not mean that Victor can’t create a healthy lifestyle, and can’t stick with it. It might just take him a little longer for the action of physical fitness to transform into a “habit”.

So how can someone like Victor create a habit of exercise?

Think long-term. Realize that it will take longer than 3 weeks to make exercise a habit; it might take 6 months. It might take longer.
Set a 1 year goal. What do you want to accomplish in one year? Tip: For weight loss, 1 pound a week is very doable with consistent effort and diet.

Set a 90-day (short-term) goal. 21 days to create a habit? Nah. 90 is a good start. If you can stick with something for 90 days, that is a great accomplishment! You are on your way to making a lifestyle change. Do another 90 and then another.

Set a sub-goal (30 days). Small sub goals can show you that you are making progress toward your long-term goals.

So, remember:
 Fitness is for the long-term. Beyond 21 days, beyond 90 days, and even beyond a year. Start with a year though. Consistent efforts over one year’s time will without a doubt show that you have created a habit of fitness and living a healthy lifestyle.

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