The Art and Science of Fitness | The power of habits in developing lasting fitness routines
To form sustainable fitness habits, strike a balance between pursuing fitness goals and maintaining a well-rounded, enjoyable life.
Exactly a decade ago, I was approached by a women’s fitness magazine to coach women from all walks of life to run 6 km over a period of 3 months. I thought it was going to be a walk in the park for me as I had just come back from Ladakh after having organised the fourth edition of La Ultra - The High, an insane ultra-marathon which at that time had a distance of 222 km, involving crossing high mountain passes twice over in just 48 hours. When I had initially conceptualised this event, I was told by experts of all kinds that it was impossible and dangerous, that I could get someone killed.
It was that same year that we had the first Indian participate at La Ultra - The High, Ambar Sharma (name changed) from Lucknow. She missed an early cut-off on the race course that needed to be reached in a certain time to stay in the race. It reminds me of Viper’s dialogue in Top Gun (1986) when Tom Cruise’s character didn’t follow the order to land a plane immediately. “Lieutenant Mitchell… Top Gun rules of engagement exist for your safety and for that of your team. They are not flexible, nor am I. Either obey them, or you are history.” As far as I was concerned, I had made it crystal clear during the race briefing itself that I was going to give no second chance to someone missing the cut-offs. She had crewed -- volunteered at the race in the crew team of another runner, helping him run this crazy race -- at an earlier edition of the race, so she knew well why and how we did what we did.
Against advice, even though she wasn’t in good shape, Ambar carried on running. I had pulled off all the support for her and other disqualified runners as we had limited resources and had to focus on participants who were not putting themselves or others at risk by trying to prove a point. When someone has already taken longer to get to a certain point at a lower altitude, as you start climbing further, one is exposed to extremely low levels of oxygen and temperatures for a longer duration, with an increased chance of getting high altitude sickness, which can easily be fatal. Luckily, she ended up finishing the race, taking longer than the allotted time. As much as I was extremely upset with her because her stunt could have gotten her or her crew members killed, I totally admire her stubbornness to carry on.
Ambar’s effort is crucial in understanding habit formation and to what end. As for the ladies I mentored in 2013 to get to 6 km, there were eighteen of them, from ages 13 to 60 years. They were from all walks of life - students, fashion designers, lawyers, homemakers, former bankers, entrepreneurs, corporate employees etc. I thought I knew what I had signed up for as I had dealt with participants at La Ultra - The High from 11 different countries, including Ambar. I had been mentoring people to pick up running even a decade before that, but here I was in for a surprise. These 18 ladies and Ambar taught me that getting started is tougher than doing more, but staying on the path is even tougher. Even though all the ladies ended up running 6 km in 3 months, there were a lot of stops and starts because of all kinds of challenges. Unfortunately, most of those ladies stopped their fitness journey.
As with the ladies, motivation can get you started, but then it is a discipline that will keep you on track. A lot easier said than done. So, how does one develop a fitness habit to carry on for life? That’s what excites me now rather than making people do insane distances because I like bigger challenges.
My elder son Harsheath, when asked about his fitness journey, facing all kinds of bullies, often says “Discipline trumps motivation”. But without motivation, discipline isn’t going to get you started. The motivation for the first step is crucial for the longest of journeys, whether it be the journey to the moon by Neil Armstrong, or Mahatma Gandhi’s supposed encouraging words ‘Karke Dekhein’ to the doubtful Motilal Nehru to get on with Dandi March. That long, sustained and disciplined journey eventually got India freedom from the British and has now also got us onto the moon.
A lazy way to get active, form a habit
There is a lot to learn about habits from Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’. Duhigg makes an interesting point about us humans. “Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.”
Our lazy brain doesn’t want to figure out new patterns each time. It prefers to stick to the same old ways. This should give us confidence that we are lazy by design, but yet we can make the most of that lazy trait to become more active.
Bruce Lee’s quote now makes more sense here. "I fear not the man who has practised 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practised one kick 10,000 times," he is thought to have said. That person’s lazy approach has made a habit of that one kick, rather than trying to figure out many different kicks. Effectively, it's the smart way of training, sticking to one kick, that has made it second nature for him. I hate to admit it, but multitaskers like me struggle to keep up with those lazy but smart people who master a few tricks. We need to be applying the same to anything we want to make a habit of. When you get started, pick one or two activities at the most, don’t try to do an overhaul of multiple things as it then wouldn’t last.
Exercise, the keystone habitSince I am busy contradicting myself, let me carry on with the same here too, something tried and tested over decades. Duhigg talks about ‘keystone habits’, i.e. some habits have a positive domino effect on other habits in life. Lo and behold, ‘exercise’ is a great example of this. Someone who has got on the fitness journey will have a higher chance of making behavioural changes for eating better and on time, sleeping early and long enough and also making changes that are good for mental health. This further leads to better relationships, both personal and professional. But again, please be mindful that I am saying that start with one activity to begin with, and the rest will follow. Don’t rush it. Remember, it all needs to begin with one step.
Habit by autonomy and leadershipDuhigg observed that giving people a sense of control and feeling that they are helping someone else while doing what they enjoy, is much less taxing for them as compared to when it feels as if they are just following orders, which tires their willpower sooner.
Once they have the motivation from within to change their behaviour, they are far more likely to get started and develop a habit out of it. Here, I always suggest to people to become their own best friend first. Only then will they be able to become a better friend, brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother, or partner to anyone else. Once this flow is understood, they tend to get started.
For the first 30-40 days, it is not about whether you are enjoying the journey or not. Expectations need to be set correctly. It is not going to be fun in the beginning. Change is always uncomfortable but once you are on board with that thought process, it becomes a lot easier to get started. In about a month, a physically active lifestyle would have become a habit that you enjoy too.
As for being of help to others, as much as you are only getting started on your health journey, it is advisable to pick up a few people from your family and friend circle who could benefit from a similar journey. Mentor them because when you have accountability attached, you are far more likely to show up and pick it up as a habit.
Action loop of cue, routine, reward and cravingOnce you have enough motivation to get on the journey of becoming a healthier you, Duhigg suggests what you will need to get on with making it a habit. “This is how new habits are created: By putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop. Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier,” he writes.
Habit isn’t getting started if you don’t take action and it starts with the cue. In the case of picking up fitness for life, your cue is the morning alarm or wake-up phone call from a fitness partner. Routine is putting on shoes, maybe driving to the park or the gym and getting on with running or exercising.
Walking or running is a great exercise to begin with as its simplicity makes it possible for anyone. The repetitive movement of the left step followed by the right, makes it a meditation in motion. The same holds true for swimming and cycling, just that these have more logistical challenges. Strength training, whether it be with body weight, external weights or machines, is also a wonderful habit to pick up. For those who find all of these boring, choose a sport, where the play element keeps the fun factor high, and is more likely to keep you on track to developing a habit for life. Whatever it be, it is for you to figure out what works for you.
This takes us to rewards, because of which we would crave for a healthy routine.
Rewards could be different for different people. It could be having a company you love and having the sense of belongingness to a group, feeling good about yourself, feeling happy being in the open, being able to do an activity that you thought you could never do, getting medals, trophies and certificates, being able to have cheat meals or it could even be taking selfies doing that activity and posting it all over social media. Never let others' opinions of your reward bother you. Do it because it pleases you and keeps you on track.
Craving could be the sense of becoming more desirable by the opposite gender, or as your preference might be; becoming popular on social media by having more likes and followers; feeling healthier and being full of energy throughout the day; or maybe having more confidence at work. Craving is the one that gets you back thinking about the routine, and to trigger that we need the cue. That loop soon becomes a healthy habit.
Keep your habits healthy, don't convert them into an addictionBy now you would be wondering why I gave Ambar’s story. As the consequences of Ambar’s stubbornness could have been grievous, we need to be careful when we follow a healthy routine just because we crave rewards even when we know it’s excessive and injurious to us.
During the pandemic, all kinds of challenges became popular, attracting mainly sedentary people. One of them being able to walk or run for 'x' number of consecutive days. No doubt the intent was right, but the logic was very doubtful. Whenever this challenge comes along, a few days into it, I see an increased number of people getting injured and rushing to me to address their injury so they can go back to their challenge. There should at least be one or two rest days in a week, even more for people who are just about getting started.
The same happens around the running season with both novice and experienced runners. I would see a lot of them with running injuries who expect me to cure them instantly, only if it worked like that, so they can participate in their dream race they have been looking forward to for a long time. Our target should be to pick up a healthy habit for life, not for a race or a challenge alone.
My selfish reason for this warning is that permanent injuries to such headstrong people give a bad name to healthy habits, discouraging the fence sitters from getting moving.
We should know when to rest and when to stop. When our healthy craving becomes an obsessiveness and addiction, we need to step back. We need to be in control at all times and not let our healthy habits mess up our relationships and health. My simple check for this is that if you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, it’s time to reassess why you got started in the first place. Sometimes, down the line, we forget it and we need to go back to the basics.
The word habit is already giving the best tip but somehow we overlook it. Ha-bit to me refers to creating a habit in bits and pieces while laughing, smiling and having fun. And that’s the reason I always sign off as ‘keep miling and smiling’.
Keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days
He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.
The views expressed are personal