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How to Stick to Your Fitness Habits the Easy Way, According to Science
How to hack your own willpower and motivation, using tactics gleaned from cutting-edge research
It’s easier to roll something downhill than to push it up a slope.
As a personal trainer, it’s part of my job to tell people what they need to do to get or stay in shape: how to work out and how often, what to eat, which morning and evening routines to follow.
But here’s the thing: that’s not really what most people need.
Yes, it helps to know exactly how to optimize your diet and workouts—but the truth is, simply moving more and eating less junk food is good enough to be in decent shape. It’s just that most people have trouble doing that.
Staying in shape is mostly about program compliance: it’s not about having the best fitness program, but about having one that’s good enough, and making sure you actually stick to it.
Fortunately, tens of thousands of studies have been done on how to build healthy habits, stick to a diet, and stay motivated to exercise. In this article, I’m going to share some scientifically-validated strategies for sticking to a diet or exercise program, along with examples of how I help my own clients put them into practice.
Rather than view your health habits as the punishment of Sisyphus, use these tactics to help you gather downhill momentum, ease, and enjoyment instead.
How to Learn Restraint If You’ve Picked Up a Bad Habit
There’s a common saying that willpower is like a muscle: it gets stronger when you use it. The truth is more complex. There’s mixed evidence for how much people can really improve their self-control.
A meta-analysis confirmed what successful dieters already know: you can effectively train yourself to avoid starting bad habits—like eating junk food—in the first place, but it’s much harder to try and stop doing them once you’ve started.
I’ve seen this demonstrated time and again in my personal training clients. In my coaching experience, successful dieters usually declare certain foods to be completely out of bounds, or allowed only during occasional designated cheat meals, rather than expecting themselves to eat everything in moderation.
One example is particularly notable. I had a client who ate fast food for lunch every weekday. He initially wanted me to help him limit consumption to two slices of pizza or one hamburger, and no fries each day. He was resistant to the idea of giving up his lunch habit, but I convinced him to eat salad for lunch most days, limiting pizza and burgers only to lunch on Fridays and dinner on Sundays. After a year of no progress, this one change was enough that he started losing two pounds a week.
Don’t Resist Temptation — Avoid It
Saying “no” to a tempting bad habit might seem like a simple matter of self-control. But it turns out that people with high self-control may not necessarily be better at resisting temptation. They might just experience it less often in the first place.
A series of three studies in Germany found that individuals who scored high in the personality trait of self-control actually performed worse at tasks which tested their willpower via several different methods. The researchers concluded that people with high trait self-control engage in less frequent impulse inhibition in their daily routines. In other words, they’re not better at resisting temptation, but they experience temptation less often.
Avoiding temptation usually requires changing your environment or your daily routine. Everyone can benefit from simple practices, like not keeping junk food in their home. But you may need to take a deeper look at where you experience temptation.
One client of mine was trying to build the habit of eating salads for lunch, but she kept caving and ordering dessert after her salad. In her case, the fix was to change her lunch location to a healthy restaurant that didn’t have any desserts she liked.
In another case, a client of mine kept drinking beer when he was out with his friends. For him, the solution was to volunteer as designated driver. That way, he was forced to not drink, and his friends switched from urging him to drink to making sure he didn’t.
Treat Willpower as an Unlimited Resource
Until recently, the leading theory about willpower or self-control was something called “ego depletion”. Ego depletion portrays willpower as something like the stamina bar in a video game. It goes down when you use it, and you replenish it by resting (or consuming food and beverages).
According to Roy Baumeister, the man behind the theory, “A program of laboratory studies suggests that self-control depends on a limited resource, akin to energy or strength. Acts of self-control and, more generally, of choice and volition deplete this resource, thereby impairing the self’s ability to function. These effects appear after seemingly minor exertions because the self tries to conserve its remaining resources after any depletion. Rest and positive affect help restore the self’s resources.”
In one of Dr. Baumeister’s early experiments, subjects who had to resist the temptation of eating chocolate subsequently performed worse on a puzzle-solving task. The experiment induced ego depletion via a different type of task than the one being used to measure self-control. The underlying assumption is that self-control is a single capacity that is used for all types of tasks—that is, you use the same resource to resist eating junk food that you use to concentrate on working.
Baumeister’s theory has seemingly been supported by a large number of studies. But all of these studies use more or less the same methodology: the experimental group performs a difficult task to deplete their self-control, then performs another challenging task in which their self-control is measured. The control group only performs the second task.
There’s one big problem with this theory: the evidence doesn’t really support it. Several reviews of the research on ego depletion have cast doubt on the theory’s validity. From the abstract of a 2015 meta-analysis: “We find very little evidence that the depletion effect is a real phenomenon, at least when assessed with the methods most frequently used in the laboratory.”
The article Everything Is Crumbling by Daniel Engber sums up the problem with ego depletion research so far: meta-analyses that support the theory include only published studies, introducing a large degree of publication bias. Meta-analyses that include unpublished studies find little or no effect. In one replication study, only 2 out of 24 research teams running the exact same experiment found a significant positive result. In other words, once the theory became popular, experiments which failed to confirm it stopped getting published.
Different studies on ego depletion also use conflicting and sometimes illogical measures for ego depletion; one study assumed that ego-depleted subjects would give more money to charity, while another assumed they would spend less time helping a stranger.
Finally, one study has suggested that willpower is only a limited resource if you believe it is. This study found that students who viewed willpower as a non-limited resource procrastinated less and got better grades than students who viewed it as a limited resource. Now, this study didn’t prove that their beliefs about willpower caused their willpower to be strong—but in practice, you can often become good at something by copying the attitudes of people who are already good at it.
In short, the research suggests that willpower either doesn’t get depleted, or doesn’t deplete very much. That doesn’t mean that willpower never gives out—it means that willpower doesn’t necessarily have to get weaker over time.
Just changing the way you think about willpower can help.
A friend of mine has been working with a productivity coach for the past year. She tells me a story about how she was skipping workouts because she felt too tired. Her coach gave her a quick kick in the ass: “You feel tired because you’ve decided to be tired. That’s your choice.”
And you know what? It worked. She started going to the gym whether she felt tired or not. She found that once she made that decision and started moving, the tiredness went away.
Leverage Your Motivation
A recent series of studies by several teams of Canadian researchers suggests that your ability to say “no” to temptations also depends on where your motivation comes from.
They found that people who are motivated by the feeling that they “have to” reach a goal engage in more effortful self-control, while people who “want to” reach their goal experience fewer goal-disrupting temptations and thus don’t need to exert as much self-control.
“Have to” goals are typically those that are set externally — for example, a doctor tells you that you should lose weight, or a spouse wants you to quit smoking. A “want to” goal is one that you feel internally motivated to accomplish — you want to get fit so you can fulfill your dream of climbing Everest, or you do your workout because you love how it makes you feel.
It seems the old cliché that you ‘just have to want it badly enough’ has some truth to it after all.
You can develop ‘want to’ motivation over time by changing your self-talk about your goals. Tell yourself that you want to follow healthy habits, rather than that you need to, and over time it becomes true.
Use Cognitive Dissonance to Build Intrinsic Motivation
You’ve probably heard of cognitive dissonance, but if not, here’s the quick summary: people try to keep all of their beliefs and actions consistent with each other. We become uncomfortable when our beliefs and our actions are inconsistent with each other. We tend to try to lower our stress by bringing them into alignment.
Research has largely upheld the view that extrinsic motivators—like financial rewards—are less motivating in the long run. Intrinsic motivators—valuing an activity for its own sake, rather than for any external rewards—are better for staying motivated in the long term.
One meta-analysis of motivational studies (not all of them health-related) found that tangible incentives can even sometimes reduce intrinsic motivation slightly, while verbal praise tends to increase it.
Praise feels good, but has no tangible value. It can also reinforce the recipient’s emerging self-image as a person with a new habit. In other words, praising someone for taking care of their health causes them to see themselves as a healthy person, so they take care of their health more in the future: it motivates them into the actions that are more in alignment with their new belief in themselves as “a healthy person”.
It also appears that reminding someone of the investments they’ve already made in their health can also make people healthier by leveraging cognitive dissonance.
In one experiment, patients who had previously undergone bariatric surgery were reminded of the large investment they had previously made in bariatric surgery. The experimental group lost 6.77 kg in 3 months, vs. only 0.91 kg for the control group.
The takeaway: you can boost your intrinsic motivation by reminding yourself of the the time, money and effort you’ve invested in your health already. And intrinsic motivation is stronger than external pressures.
One client of mine had tried and tried to lose weight, but never really saw herself as a healthy person. I had her do two things to change her self-image. First, I asked her to keep her workout gear out in a very visible location in her living room. And second, I encouraged her to create a photo album of herself engaging in healthy activities: running, weightlifting, cooking, shopping for vegetables, and eating healthy food.
Over time, she started to see herself as a healthy person. Good diet and exercise habits stopped feeling so effortful and started to come naturally to her.
To leverage praise as a strategy, try getting a fitness partner—ideally a housemate or romantic partner.
I used to coach a married couple who wanted to lose weight together. Among other things, I had them make a habit of praising each other for their health-related behaviors. Pretty soon they began to enjoy working out and cooking and eating healthy meals together—both due to reducing cognitive dissonance, and because it those started to become romantic activities for them.
Reducing cognitive dissonance is a stress reduction technique. In a way, it leverages stress to work for you instead of against you. You can also reducing negative forms of stress to help you change your habits.
Stress plays a major role in unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, and sleep disruption. Two recent studies demonstrated the effectiveness of stress management training in obese Greek and African American women. The Greek study noted that subjects who received stress management training engaged in more restrained eating. The American study found that stress management training decreased levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone.
A review of 14 studies on the benefits of mindfulness meditation for weight loss found that mindfulness meditation was effective at combating emotional eating and binge eating. It found mixed evidence for weight loss benefits in subjects who don’t have emotional eating problems.
Several clients of mine have found that reducing their stress levels helped them to lose weight, build muscle, and most importantly, improve their subjective well-being.
Some of them learned to manage stress through things like mindfulness meditation or improved time management; others have fought stress at the source by doing things like working shorter hours, cutting back spending to reduce financial stress, or spending less time around people who stress them out.
Most people exercise less often when stressed out, but some exercise more when they’re stressed. One big change that I implement with many of my clients who have trouble with fitness goals is helping them learn to use exercise as a stress reliever.
If stress gets in the way of your exercise habits, look for ways to make it relaxing (intrinsic motivation!). Listen to music while you work out, read a magazine between exercises, or sit in the sauna at the end of the workout. Simply choosing a fitness activity that you actually find fun can have a big impact.
The Instagram Effect, or Why Food Porn Is Good for You
Younger readers might find this hard to believe, but back in the day, people didn’t take pictures of everything they ate and post them on the internet. In fact, I’m pretty sure that back then “food porn” referred to actual porn involving food.
But now for some folks, it’s not a meal unless you have your camera out, and geezers like me are asking: is all this instant-gramming and chat-snapping healthy?
As it turns out, that depends.
A series of studies which tested the impact of photographing food before eating it found that for pleasurable or “indulgent” foods, snapping a photo before eating increased subjects’ enjoyment of the food and their opinion of its taste. For healthy, non-indulgent foods, this effect was observed only when social norms around healthy eating were made salient by reminding subjects that other people eat a healthy diet.
Viewing food porn is also pleasurable—yet surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to make people actually want to eat the food pictured. The opposite, in fact: viewing the photos induced satiety, decreasing the desire for and enjoyment of foods of the type shown in the photos.
Based on the research, it seems you should photograph healthy food before you eat it, but counterintuitively, you’d be better off viewing photos of junk food—unless you’re looking up food online with the express purpose of finding a recipe to cook.
One of my clients started keeping a food journal and posting photos of most of her meals to Instagram. It’s hard to say if this was due to the “Instagram effect” or plain old accountability, but either way, she lost thirty pounds in four months after years of failed weight loss attempts…and she’s kept it off.
Practice Remembered Enjoyment
Every client I’ve had who has succeeded in improving their diet has learned to enjoy eating healthy food.
Every single one.
So how do you learn to enjoy a diet?
If you remember that you enjoyed something the last time you did it, you’re more likely to do it again. It therefore stands to reason that if you manipulate your memories, you can change your behavior.
A study by Robinson et al demonstrated that remembered enjoyment of food could be increased by instructing subjects to “rehearse” what they enjoyed about the food immediately after eating it. A follow-up study then showed that this increase in “remembered enjoyment” correlated with an increase in the amount of that same food that subjects consumed when it was offered as part of a buffet lunch the next day.
The practical application is clear, and simple: after eating a healthy meal, stop to reflect on what you enjoyed about it. Maybe even Instagram it, so you’ll have that reinforcement in your memory later.
Here’s a quick summary of every strategy presented in this article:
- Your first priority should be to avoid temptation in the first place. If you can’t, then try to be ready to resist it.
- Start thinking of your willpower as an unlimited resource. Take the attitude that you don’t have to feel depleted of the ability to make a good choice unless you choose to let that happen.
- Reward yourself for following your diet and fitness program with verbal praise—either via self-talk or by having an accountability partner — and mutually congratulate each other for doing well.
- Frequently remind yourself of the time, energy and money you’ve already invested in your health to help build a stronger self-image as a healthy person.
- Minimize stress. Kill it at the source if possible; otherwise meditate, sleep well, and find effective ways to de-stress. Have fun!
- Learn ways you can enjoy exercise and find it relaxing. Reframe exercise, cooking healthy food, and other good habits as stress relievers.
- Take photos of healthy food before you eat it, and post them to social media. Reflect on your enjoyment of them. Conversely, you can try viewing photos of junk food, not healthy food.
- Make a deliberate practice of remembering how much you enjoy engaging in health habits like eating healthy food, exercising, or getting to bed on time.
Which will you start with? You needn’t try to do everything at once. Focus on building one or two of these habits for one month. Then, once you’re consistent with those habits, add in another one, and build momentum. Within three months, you’ll have built several habits that completely change your attitude towards fitness and your relationship with food.
Sticking to a fitness program doesn’t need to be a constant uphill battle. When you understand the science of diet and fitness psychology, you can become a person who doesn’t need to think twice about eating healthy and making it to the gym.