As self-aware creatures capable of intelligent thought, we tend to assume that we are in complete conscious control of what we do each day.  But the truth is, there are thousands of decisions to make each day, many of them the same as those we made yesterday, and we would be wasting precious mental energy if we pondered them again and again each time they arose.  Therefore, our brains have developed a shortcut to save time and energy by converting nearly any decision we make repeatedly into an automatic behavior called a ‘habit.’  About 40% of the decisions we make each day are governed by our habits, and understanding them is the key to understanding why some people are out jogging at 6am on a freezing winter morning while others can’t get out off the couch on the best of days.

Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of The Power of Habit, defines habits as “choice[s] that we deliberately make at some point and then stop thinking about, but continue doing.”  People who have a regular exercise routine don’t choose to go train each day.  They have done it so many times in the past that it has simply become what they do.  In fact, if they can’t do their regular workout, due to unforeseen circumstances or an injury, for example, they are left with a feeling that something is missing, an unsatisfied itch that can’t be scratched.

Repetition is the key to forming a habit, so when someone who is new to exercise attempts to create such a routine, motivation will only take them so far.  They must engage in the desired behavior enough times to reach the tipping point: the point at which a behavior becomes a habit.  We can make sense of this process by examining the structure of habits and its component parts, and we can even use this understanding to facilitate the creation of new, desirable habits, such as developing an exercise habit for new gym members.

Anatomy of a habit: the “habit loop”

The model used to understand the cognitive pattern of habits is called “the habit loop,” and it is comprised of three core elements: a cue, a routine and a reward.  To illustrate this model, we’ll use the example of checking your phone messages, a behavior that most of us do so many times each day that it’s become a deeply ingrained habit.

The cue is the stimulus that triggers the behavior (e.g.: the buzz of your phone is the cue that causes you to automatically take your phone out of your pocket). The routine is the automatic behavior triggered by a particular cue, (e.g.: checking your messages) which produces a distinct reward (the information contained within the message).  Over time, our brains start to associate the pleasure of the reward with the appearance of the cue, causing us to engage in the routine to satisfy the craving.  Thus, a new habit is born, and once it is formed, it is usually very difficult to break.

Behavior change begins with the cue

A cue can be anything from a specific time or place, to a preceding action or emotion.  It can be intentional - like a notification from an app or an alarm clock, or incidental - like hunger or a bad mood.  Cues vary from person to person and habit to habit, as different people are motivated by different things.

In order to make a durable behavioral change, a person must find a cue that is clear, timely, and persuasive.  Encourage your members to select dependable cues such as arriving home from work or completing some evening chores or even by scheduling workouts in their calendar so that a reminder will prompt them the night before.

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

The routine is the time a member spends at the club

The next component in the loop is the routine, which is the behavior itself.  Once a habit has been cued, how likely we are to follow through with it depends on how easy or hard it is.  How long does it take?  How demanding is it, both physically and cognitively?  Does it hurt or does it feel good?  Does it make us feel embarrassed to do it, or proud?

Exercise is notoriously difficult for newcomers, but you can make things easier for your members in a few ways:

  1. Keep it simple. Knowing exactly what to do and how to do it makes members more likely to follow through
  2. Keep it short. Beginner routines should be 30 - 45 minutes max
  3. Set the bar low. Members should feel a sense of accomplishment even if they aren’t doing the optimal amount of weight, sets, or reps.
  4. Remind them that everyone started as a beginner. It’s OK to do things wrong at first, to be confused, and to ask questions, and the other people in the gym are not judging them.
Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

The right reward keeps us coming back for more

The reward is the final element, and the craving for it is the force that gets the loop rolling again and again.  Any positive outcome of performing the routine constitutes a reward - tangible or intangible, intentional or incidental - and habits that yield the greatest rewards are the ones we keep for the longest.  Here’s where you have the most influence, because it’s often up to managers and their staff to show members how rewarding exercise can be.  The long term rewards of physical fitness are endless, but unfortunately they usually show up too late to keep members engaged in the short run.

Until they begin to see results on their own body, you can provide members with rewards in the form of positive feedback, encouragement, or even a discount, a pass to bring a friend, or a free drink at the cafe.  Whatever the reward, ensure that it is relevant (i.e.: the member actually wants it) and immediate to create a clear association with the desired behavior.  (i.e.: it is awarded because and immediately after the member finishes a workout)

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

Replacing motivation with habits

Until a habit is created, each time a new member shows up at the club, he or she draws from a finite supply of motivation, and tells himself that in a few weeks it will be easier.  If those weeks pass without checking the boxes to form a habit, they will likely conclude that the gym is simply not for them.  To avoid falling prey to this pattern, Stanford behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg suggests a person, “design [his] life to minimize reliance on willpower.”  Your members may be sufficiently motivated today, but until a routine is established, they are susceptible to failure the moment the going gets tough or they have to take a week off due to injury or vacation.  The members who have created a strong exercise habit will persevere despite the challenges, and as a direct consequence, they will retain their memberships far longer than those who do not.

CoachAi uses the "habit loop" to help members make visiting your club into a regular part of their weekly routine. Learn more 👉