Really, How Long Does it Take to Start a New Habit?
Since 2013, we’ve been able to help our clients lose more than 20,000 pounds. That’s an impressive number! When you look at how we track weight loss, it’s even more impressive. If our clients tell us they want to lose weight, we check their weight every week. When a client gains weight, we actually subtract that number from our weight loss totals, so 20,000 pounds is really an indication of how much weight our clients have been able to lose and keep off in the last five years.
The true measure of success for any weight loss program is not how much weight the person has lost, but maintaining that weight loss for more than two years. The reality is people who successfully complete weight loss programs gain two-thirds of their weight back within the first year, and 95 percent of people who lose weight gain all of their weight back within five years. Anyone can lose weight in a short period of time (just watch the Biggest Loser). Very few people manage long-term weight loss (check out the 6-year follow up of the Biggest Loser—they all regained their weight). At Exercise Inc, we’ve been able to help a lot of people just like you reach and maintain their weight loss goals for more than five years.
Our approach is helping our clients adopt Simple Habits. We focus on habits because humans are creatures of habit. Research shows that as much as 45 percent of people’s behaviors happen repeatedly each day, and often in the same location and around the same time. Your morning shower, your drive to work, and even your coffee ritual are all habits you do every day with hardly any thought.
The great news about habits is you perform them automatically without thought. That means habits keep you going, even when motivation fails. Habit formation is the reason you can drive 30 minutes to work and not even remember the ride. Your conscious brain doesn’t have to think very hard about the drive or the route. This allows you to spend more time thinking about your 8:30 meeting with the boss. Your driving to work habit is stored in the basal ganglia of your brain, where habits run when they receive certain cues.
Our brains prefer to run on autopilot. Having to think about every little decision requires a lot of extra energy, which is why our brains like to help us create patterns that we can easily follow. Not having to think about what you do in the shower allows you to think about your big presentation at 10 am. By the way, you’re probably not thinking about what you’re having for breakfast—your brain’s got that covered too. Let’s just hope it’s a good habit, not a bad one.
So how long does it take to start the right diet and exercise habits? Twenty-one days? At least that’s what we’ve always been told.
It turns out that the 21-day myth comes from the 1950s plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who noticed patients tended to grow accustomed to their surgical outcomes in 21 days. That’s the time he found it might take a patient to adjust to a nose job or a face-lift. So, when he published his best selling book “Psycho-Cybernetics” in 1960, he wrote that, “ . . .it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
Maltz wrote that it takes a minimum of 21 days for people to “adjust.” After a decades long game of telephone, everyone now thinks it takes 21 days to start a new habit. It actually takes a lot longer. This is why so many people get frustrated and give up when they fail at new exercise and nutrition habits after only 21 days of trying.
In a 2009 European Journal of Social Psychology study, researchers assigned 96 participants the task of forming a single healthy habit—anything from drinking a bottle of water with lunch to running for 15 minutes before dinner. They found it took anywhere from 18 to 254 days for new habits to fully form. The length of time depended on how big or lifestyle changing the habit was. However, the researchers concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days to form a new healthy habit.
Every time we perform a new behavior, a new neurological pathway begins to form in the brain. Think of this as road building. Slowly a dirt hiking-trail is formed. As we continue to perform the new behavior, the trail gets paved. If we stay at it long enough, a four-lane highway is formed. Some highways are easier to build if the terrain is smooth and clear, but if the terrain is rough and the area is full of trees, it will take a lot longer to build the highway.
Researchers also found that you don’t have to perform a behavior every single day for it to become a habit. A missed day here or there doesn’t sabotage your efforts. If you have a bad meal one day, or just don’t have time to go for a walk, it’s okay. Get back to eating healthy at your next meal and get out for that walk first thing the next morning. Don’t put yourself on a guilt trip; just get back in the game.
Our Simple 9 nutritional program is based on forming the right habits that have been proven over 10 years of experience to help our clients lose weight and keep it off long term. Our program is “Simple,” but not easy. Starting new habits is hard work, that’s why our coaches will help you each step of the way. If you need to make some changes in your waistline, or you just want to feel better, we are here for you. Just ask one of our personal fitness coaches what you need to do to get started on some new habits.