If it's difficult to motivate yourself to go running after work or hit the gym first thing in the morning, new research from Iowa State University might have an answer: Develop an "instigation habit" that will signal to your body it's time to work out.
In order to turn an exercise routine into a habit, researchers from Iowa State focused on these fitness cues—for example, a morning alarm—to see how they affected exercise frequency. The study, published in Health Psychology, looked at 123 healthy adults between 18- and 73-years-old, and tracked how often they exercised over one month. They asked participants to rate strengths of their "exercise instigation" and "execution habit." Instigation referred to the decision to begin exercising, while execution referred to the actual exercise routine (for example, doing 30 minutes on the elliptical and then lifting weights at the gym every day).
"Regardless of the type of exercise you're going to do on a particular day, if you have an instigation habit, you'll start exercising without having to think a lot about it or consider the pros and cons," says Alison Phillips, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State and one of the study's authors. The study also noted that internal habits are the strongest—such as a mental need to exercise after staring at a computer all day—but are more difficult to teach.
Whatever your instigation cue, the research suggests that developing a regular habit that triggers you to get moving might be more important than following a set exercise routine. So, instead of focusing on a pattern at the gym, try to find a habitual way to cue to yourself that it's time to exercise—be it a morning alarm, or bringing gym clothes to work so you know to head to the gym once 5 p.m. rolls around.
"The current study's results are hopeful in that they suggest, once someone has an instigation habit, he or she can vary the particular exercises without worrying about quitting regular exercise," Phillips said in an email.