How To Make Exercise A Habit That Sticks : Shots - Health News Falling off the exercise wagon more than you'd like? These strategies, based on economics and the science of habit formation, can help. Plus, you get to binge-watch TV.

How To Make Exercise A Habit That Sticks

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You are committed to exercise. You've dusted off the gym shoes. You are going to bridge that divide between thinking about it and actually doing it regularly - oops, but that was Monday - and Tuesday. Ooh, Wednesday's slipping by. And now it's Friday. What is it going to take to build that habit?


AUBREY: What's that old saying - two weeks or three weeks to make a habit? Is that actually true? Does the research bear that out?

KATHERINE MILKMAN: And 10 seconds to break it.


AUBREY: This is your NPR LIFE KIT for exercise. In this episode - building an exercise habit that really sticks, making it a regular part of your life whether that's a couple times a week or every day. We've got six tips backed up by science, including how bingeing on your favorite Netflix show just might help you exercise more often - really, I promise. There's research on these. That's coming up in a minute.


AUBREY: I'm Allison Aubrey, and I cover health and wellness here at NPR. Now, we all know that best intentions can fail. We're busy. We're tired. And one reason that people tell me it's hard to make that exercise habit stick - they say, you know, I'm just not athletic. I don't fit in at the gym.

RENITA JABLONSKI, BYLINE: I was the child who took 20 minutes to walk around the track when we were doing the presidential fitness tests.

AUBREY: Oh, God. The bane of every child's existence, am I right?

JABLONSKI: Yeah, like, you know, trying to run.

AUBREY: Climbing the ropes.

JABLONSKI: Cramping - and nobody - like, nobody was telling me like, no, it's totally normal to cramp when you run.

AUBREY: That was Renita Jablonski. She is a longtime staffer here at NPR. And she and I used to talk in the hallway a lot about this problem that she felt she was up against.

JABLONSKI: I always feel better when I exercise. But it's - like, it's been hard for me to kind of break back into it for some reason, just on a very emotional level.

AUBREY: So I found a great person for Renita to meet. And I think she could be good for all of us.

MILKMAN: Hi, there.

AUBREY: Oh, hello. Nice to meet you. This is Katy Milkman. She's a professor at the Wharton School of Business. Now, Katy, you kind of blend psychology and economics to figure out the best ways to nudge people to better habits. Is that right?

MILKMAN: I could not have said it better myself.

JABLONSKI: Katy, help me.


AUBREY: So let's get to it. Katy's got six strategies to help us turn that intention into reality. And tip number one - you have got to give this a month. That's about what it takes to build a sticky habit.

For years, I've heard that it takes - what is that old saying? - two weeks or three weeks to make a habit. Is that actually true? Does the research bear that out?

MILKMAN: And 10 seconds to break it.


MILKMAN: Yeah, that's a great question. I always get asked that question. Like, oh, how long does it take? Is it like five days? Is it 50 days? Is it 25 days? The one thing we do know about habits is about a month is enough. So we don't know - maybe three weeks would be fine too. Maybe 50 days would be way better. But we know a month of intense activity, repeating exercise over the course of a month, is actually enough to kickstart habits that last for a good long while after that. In fact, I did a large randomized controlled trial where we paid people to exercise for 28 days and saw benefits as much as 40 weeks later.


MILKMAN: The key to habits is repetition. And if you can get that repetition going while you have high motivation, you're much more likely to have a behavior change that lasts.

AUBREY: Now, let's talk about a tip that will actually get you moving day in and day out. It's something that Katy calls temptation bundling. And this is tip number two. Think about a television show that you love watching but wouldn't always admit to other people.

JABLONSKI: I guess I'm going to say it out loud - "Keeping Up With The Kardashians."

MILKMAN: Of course.

JABLONSKI: And I really, really want to watch "The Crown." I have not seen any of it. And everyone around me because we work at NPR has talked about it.

AUBREY: OK, I'm with you. I love it. I can't wait until the new season starts.

JABLONSKI: Yeah. So you know, you had me at TV.

AUBREY: All right.

JABLONSKI: So here I am.

MILKMAN: Well, my research has shown that you could actually combine watching trashy TV or highbrow TV as long as you love it - like "The Crown" - with exercise. And it may actually help you get to the gym much more often. And we've shown that it can increase the rate at which people exercise if they combine a real pleasure that they look forward to with their workouts. So you're not allowed to watch "The Crown" unless you're at the gym. That's the idea. And as a result, you're going to start craving trips to the gym to see the next episode.

AUBREY: (Laughter).

MILKMAN: And you won't feel any guilt about spending time watching TV because you'll be working out.

AUBREY: Hear that? You'll be craving it, Renita.

JABLONSKI: Yeah. So I've just got to make sure that my husband doesn't want to watch this too because he'll be like...

MILKMAN: That's a very important thing about temptation bundling. You don't want to choose the wrong TV show and then have marital strife.


AUBREY: All right, next takeaway - let's talk about goal-setting. This is tip No. 3. You want to set goals that motivate you but don't trap you. So is your goal to work out twice a week, to run a marathon, to go to classes at the gym or maybe just a power walk? Whatever it is, here's how Katie says to game it out.

KATY MILKMAN: It's super important when you set goals to set goals that push you a little bit. So you don't want to just say, oh, I'll go to the gym once a month. That's - well, I sure hope that that...

AUBREY: I can totally do that.

MILKMAN: (Laughter).

AUBREY: I can do that one. I got it.



MILKMAN: Yeah. So that's a bad goal. You want to push yourself. You also don't want to set a crazy, abstract goal, like a hundred times this year. It needs to be more concrete. You've got to think about, what are you going to do in the next week? What sounds a little bit tough but achievable? And that's where you set your goal. And then another important thing is to give yourself a little bit of leeway for messing up.

So there's this really cool research that I think we can all relate to on what's called the what-the-hell effect. So the what-the-hell effect says that if we fail to hit our goals, we can throw in the towel and go crazy. For instance, say you have a calorie goal today and you eat a little bit more than you were supposed to for dinner. You say what the hell, and then you eat the cheesecake.

AUBREY: The whole pie. I've never done that. Right?

MILKMAN: The whole pie or the whole cheesecake. Yeah.


AUBREY: I did that yesterday. Yes.

MILKMAN: So that's the risk of goals. If they're tough and then you don't make it, you can throw in the towel and actually be worse off. So how do you balance these two things? Well, there's this really cool research that's come out of Wharton and UCLA showing that it's key to give yourself a free pass every once in a while. So if you set the tough goal, like, I'm going to try to go to the gym five days this week - that's going to be a stretch, but I'm going to try really hard for it. Just remind yourself that you have a couple of free passes. If you have a late night at work, you can take a mulligan. And it's OK. You don't want to give yourself five free passes, but maybe two. You're actually going to do better with the tougher goal, but the allowance for failure, those mulligans, those free passes, in terms of efficacy.

AUBREY: Which is great. I mean, it certainly is something that I actually have to take a little more seriously and stop what-the-helling all over the place because...

MILKMAN: (Laughter).

AUBREY: ...I'm always telling other people, like, be good to yourself, and...

MILKMAN: Let yourself off the hook.

AUBREY: And I need to actually follow that advice.


AUBREY: You know, this is one that really hits home for me. I definitely took a free pass this week. And I think about it this way, almost like a mental trick. You're more likely to actually get that workout in if you have an ambitious goal, but you've got to have these built-in free passes. Being too strict about your workout goal can work against you. You can sabotage yourself. And when that happens, I want you to keep this in mind. There's a whole body of research to suggest that all you really need to keep your heart healthy is to exercise about 20 to 25 minutes a day of moderate activity. Now, obviously, more is better, but 20 to 25 minutes is all you need. And you can kind of weave it into your day. You can take the stairs when you're at work. You can ride your bike to work. You can hoof it when you're walking to the train - all these ways to sneak in exercise.


AUBREY: Now moving on to tip No. 4. If you want to build a workout routine, flexibility may just be your friend.

MILKMAN: We did a large, randomized controlled trial where we tested whether or not it was more effective to encourage people to exercise daily at the same time every day or to build a more flexible routine where they sometimes exercised in the mornings and other times in the afternoon. And we were pretty sure when we started this that what you should do to build a routine - this is what all the research said - was same time, every day, rigorously.

AUBREY: I'm always lecturing my husband about that. You've got to do it...

MILKMAN: Rigidity.

AUBREY: ...At the same time.


AUBREY: You won't do it otherwise.

MILKMAN: Yeah. Yeah. It's not what we found. We actually found that it was more effective if people mixed it up.

AUBREY: Really? Wow.

MILKMAN: I know. It's so surprising. We dug into the data and said, what's going on? Well, the people who worked out at the same time every day, they did actually form a more lasting habit around exercising at that time. But here's the catch. That was the only time they ever worked out. If they missed that - and it sounds like your life is busy...


MILKMAN: ...Where you miss your 9 a.m. slot - well, what the hell. I'm not going to the gym today.

AUBREY: I love that. Yeah. That actually is really, really good to hear because it's like, well, you didn't get up at 5 a.m., I guess you blew that, rather than actually allowing exercise to come in different ways and maybe not in a totally traditional form.


AUBREY: You know, I've done a lot of reporting on social contagion. There's a whole bunch of research to show that our behaviors really can be viral. If you're a smoker, you're more likely to be surrounded by smokers. If you're happy, that happiness can spread from person to person. Even people on the outer edges of your social circle are likely to be influenced by your emotions. It's kind of like we're all birds of a flock. So this is your next tactic. Tip No. 5, make exercise social.

MILKMAN: There's lots of research showing that we look to the crowd for cues about what we should be doing. So one of my favorite studies shows that, actually, finding out how your energy consumption compares to that of your neighbors who live in similar homes is an incredibly motivating way to get people to cut their energy consumption. And you can imagine using the very same principle to motivate more exercise - if you start making it public, how you compare to your neighbors or your co-workers, all of a sudden, there's this impetus that's greater to get to the gym.

AUBREY: You know, on Instagram, so many people have - are tracking their workouts and that kind of thing. And I've seen people I know who have added dumbbells, and are sort of recording their workouts and it's a reminder to me like, you know what? Actually, I have dumbbells in my basement closet. Maybe our behaviors really do spread.

MILKMAN: Especially when they're highly visible.

AUBREY: And if you're not into social media, just do it the old-fashioned way.

MILKMAN: So if you're supposed to meet your friend at the gym, you're a lot less likely to renege than if you're just supposed to go for yourself. If you make it hard to back out on your scheduled workout, you're more likely to show up.

AUBREY: OK. Last tip. Put some money on the line. You know, I've seen a lot of research that suggests that if people pay you to exercise, it can be a really effective strategy. But let's get real. Who gets paid to exercise? Not a lot of people.

MILKMAN: If you can't find someone willing to pay you, you can actually pay your future self. So there are these strategies you can use called commitment devices. That's the nerd term for basically betting your future self to do good things. There's a website that I like a lot called, S-T-I-C-K-K, where you can go and put money on the line that you'll forfeit if you fail to achieve a goal like visiting the gym three days a week.


AUBREY: But here's the catch. Not only are you out the cash, it actually goes to something or somebody you don't like. So say you're not a big fan of your brother-in-law, Pete. Well, Pete just took your money. You don't want that. Right? And the important thing is that it doesn't have to be a lot of money, either. I mean, it could be $5. Or bet your friend that if you don't meet your goal, you'll do their laundry. The reason this tip works is that we're very loss averse. We hate giving up something we've already earned.

MILKMAN: Yes. Exactly. So you're referencing research that won Danny Conoman the Nobel Prize in 2002. One of the things that he and Amos Tversky proved is that we find losses about twice as motivating as gains of equal size. And so if we can motivate people with sticks rather than carrots, it can actually be more effective.

AUBREY: OK. So let's review the key takeaways. You've got this. In the next 30 days, you can start a new habit. In just under a month, you can cement a workout routine. And one way to help you get there, temptation bundling.

MILKMAN: So the key here is to remember to bundle watching TV that you crave with exercise so you'll start craving your workouts.

JABLONSKI: (Laughter) I love that.

AUBREY: Then we need to set realistic goals.

MILKMAN: Absolutely. It's critical to set goals that push you a little bit but that are also within reach.

AUBREY: The other one you mentioned, the mulligan effect, or sort of just giving a free pass - is that right?

MILKMAN: Yeah. You got to be able to let yourself off the hook every once in a while so you won't feel terrible and throw in the towel after a goof.

JABLONSKI: And then I really like the social, the making it fun part of it, too.

AUBREY: And then incentivizing it - maybe bring in some kind of financial reward - or loss.

MILKMAN: You can put money on the line that you'll forfeit if you fail to achieve your exercise goals, and that's highly motivating. If you do that for as little as a month, it can create a lasting habit.

AUBREY: All right - Katy, Renita, how about tomorrow morning 7 a.m., meet on my block?


JABLONSKI: I have got some flexibility I'm thinking about now, actually.

AUBREY: Oh, right. Maybe we can stream "The Crown" while we walk.


JABLONSKI: Yeah. I'll text you and let you know.


AUBREY: If you like what you hear, make sure to check out our next episode. We work out with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's personal trainer, who gives us a full-body, 22-minute workout. Check out our other LIFE KIT podcasts at And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more podcasts coming every month on all sorts of topics. And as always, here's a completely random tip, this time from NPR science editor Malaka Gharib.

MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: If your plastic shower curtain has mildew on it, don't throw in the trash. Drop it into the tub full of hot water and put in a cup of bleach and let it sit overnight. And all the mildew will go away the next day, and then you could just hang it back up and have a clean shower curtain.

AUBREY: I am definitely going to try that. And if you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at I'm Allison Aubrey. Thanks for listening.

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