Keystone Habits: The importance of regular exercise to diet adherence - Community Moves


I was recently talking to a friend of mine, who is dangerously overweight, that wanted to come on as a personal training client. He explained that we’d have to keep it secret from his wife as she had cancelled his last contract with a trainer, claiming that it wasn’t working. She must have heard us talking or simply witnessed the guilty looks on our faces but she knew exactly what was happening. “Isn’t weight loss 90% diet, 10% exercise!!! Tell him to stop sneaking McDonalds rather than exercising, he’ll never lose weight if he keeps eating s*#t!” she shouted.

My first thought was, thanks for your support. My second thought was that, in part, she was right. You can’t out-train a bad diet. However, the role of exercise in weight loss is far more important than simply providing extra caloric expenditure. Exercise is a ‘Keystone Habit’ and helps move the dieting process from isolated and volatile, to connected and stable.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

Performing an action for the first time requires planning and attention. From actions as simple as buying your morning coffee to complex actions such as reversing your car out of the driveway. As behaviours are repeated in consistent settings they then begin to proceed more efficiently and with less thought as control of the behaviour transfers to cues in the environment that activate an automatic response: a habit.

A study in the Journal of Behaviour Medicine (2012) found there is general consensus that habit strength emerges from repetition of behaviour in stable contexts: when behaviour is habituated, it is initiated and executed automatically and without much conscious deliberation upon encountering these contexts.

Charles Duhigg, author of ‘The Power of Habit’ (which I highly recommend), postulates that there are certain habits that have the power to influence the formation and strength of other habits, he calls these ‘Keystone Habits’. Duhigg uses many examples to highlight the power of these keystone habits, including that of Michael Phelps and his use of visualisation to influence his other gold-medal winning behaviours. From an early age, Phelps and his coach developed a mental showreel of the perfect race. He imagined the perfect start off the blocks, timing his final burst of speed with complete accuracy, and so on and so forth with detailed precision. From that point, prior to every race, Phelps closed his eyes and visualised that perfect race, this became a keystone habit. By doing this every race, it also ensured that his preparation became habituated, it ensured that his pre-race nutrition was timed perfectly and that his stretching routine became automated. Phelps had used a single habit to develop a whole range of habits that lead to his incredible success.

So, when we are trying to start a new diet or stick to an existing one, exercise plays a critical role. Exercise acts in the same way as Phelps’ visualisation habit. By turning up to the gym each day, or going for a run, or engaging in whatever exercise discipline works for you on a regular, consistent basis, exercise will become habituated behaviour.

The question then is, what other habits may be linked to regular exercise. This is quite subjective but ask yourself this. Are you more or less likely to eat healthily pre and post exercise? Are you more or less likely to feel good about yourself post exercise? If you are feeling good about yourself, are you more or less likely to engage in other healthy behaviours? This is the power of exercise as a keystone habit.

The difficult part then, is turing regular exercise into a habit. Gretchen Rubin, author of ‘Better than Before’, argues that it’s easier to form a new habit if it’s fun. For example, when the stairs in a subway station in Sweden were transformed into a keyboard that played notes as you walked up them, the number of people who took the stairs instead of the escalator increased by 66 percent!
A 2015 study into habit formation in new gym goers, published in the Journal of Behavioural Science, supports this position by stating that exercise promoters should focus on setting a consistent exercise schedule and keeping the workouts fun and skill appropriate to increase the likelihood of habit formation. In addition, the environment should be comfortable and welcoming for new clients. The first 6 weeks appear critical for habit formation and new exercisers should strive to workout at least four times per week.

Trying to change your body composition and improve your health can be daunting task, particularly if you are trying to implement too many changes to your routine at one time. The conscious process of making changes to diet, scheduling exercise routines, tracking calories, increasing number of steps per day etc is unsustainable and often leads to a lack of adherence to not just one goal but most of them.
This doesn’t have to be the case though. If nothing else, just commit to exercising three or four times a week. Focus solely on this for 6 weeks. After this 6 week period, your exercise routine will be turing into exercise habit and you can then look at the next challenge….. although you may not really need to.