Tapping Exercise As a Keystone Habit

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jonathan Fields, author, entrepreneur and the producer/founder of Good Life Project.

Some habits are about a single behavior. Building one action into an automated routine that leads to a fairly narrow benefit. Other habits, though, unlock a veritable cascade of follow-on behavior changes, seemingly with far less effort than ever before.

The Power of Habit author, Charles Duhigg calls these habits “keystone habits” and exercise is one of them. Why? Because it sets in motion a series of addition changes that compound and magnify each other and, in doing so, fuel a deeper commitment to sustain new, constructive behaviors.

What exactly does that mean? Let’s break it down. Let’s say you commit to creating a new habit around exercise. You start with 5 minutes a day, because in the beginning, cultivating and ingraining the behavior change is actually more important than the benefit you’ll eventually get from longer, more intense bouts of exercise.

Every morning, you wake up and power walk around the block or do 5 minutes of Sun Salutations. The commitment threshold is so low, you don’t dread the behavior the way you would had you committed to 45 minutes out of the gate. Then a funny thing happens. You hit 5 minutes and you figure, hey I can go for another minutes or two, I’m already here.

Over a period of weeks and months, the behavior becomes more automatic and the repetition begins to build facility and ease that allows you to do more, work harder, suffer less and smile more. So, without even thinking about it, you end up expanding 5 minutes into 25, then 35 and 45. And along the way, something else begins to happen.

You begin to exercise long enough and at a high-enough level of intensity that your brain begins to change. Your mindset becomes much calmer and the stressor hormones that seemed ever-present start to fade. Your prefrontal cortex stays better fueled and lets you self-regulate with far more ease. You also start to become stronger and maybe even start to lose a bit of weight and become more physically capable, which makes you feel better emotionally.

With that emotional shift, you start to need sugar, cigarettes and alcohol less and less, because the exercise is giving you the psychological boost those things used to give you. So without even forcing it, your diet begins to change. You begin to eat healthier foods and take an interest in foods that’ll allow you to fuel your exercise better. That in turn leads you feel stronger, prouder of your choices, healthier and less pained, which leads to more exercise, better nutrition, less abusive compensatory behaviors and more weight loss and strength gains.

Your single commitment to 5 minutes of mild exercise, over times, begins to unlock a waterfall of follow-on behavior shifts that, done in a ritualized way become their own habits.

So, one thing to focus one when exploring new constructive lifestyle habits, especially exercise, is how to initiate the “cue-behavior-reward-belief” stimulus loop in a way that lowers barriers to beginning.

Don’t worry about whether you’re exercising enough to burn calories. Instead just focuse on facilitating and automating the behavior, knowing that once you do, it’ll expand on its own and open the gates to a whole bunch of other changes that would have seemed brutally hard before being unlocked in this manner.

Jonathan Fields is an author, entrepreneur and the producer/founder of Good Life Project.