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Sweat, Smile, Repeat... Lifestyle change in progress!

In this article, we unpack a little bit more about exercise motivation, and how our daily actions regarding physical activity can translate into a regular lifestyle behaviour, thus promoting physical and mental health outcomes.

“Research has shown that it takes 31 days of conscious effort to make or break a habit. That means, if one practices something consistently for 31 days, on the 32nd day it does become a habit. Information has been internalised into behavioral change, which is called transformation.”- Shiv Khera.

As we head steadfast into winter and the middle of the year, the weather is cold, life is busy, and stress is accumulating for various reasons (loadshedding; school; work-life balance; family responsibility etc). As stress increases, our motivation to change certain behaviours may take a knock, thereby getting in the way of our wellness goals. Psychologically, when we are under increasing stress, we may revert to what feels “easy” which is usually our old behaviours and habits. But can we, by understanding the nature of habits, change our default settings to keep up our new behaviour even while under stress?

Old habits die hard-png

What is a habit?

A habit can be defined as a “process whereby environmental cues automatically activate an unconscious impulse to perform a behaviour that has, through repetition, become associated with these cues.”1 Simply put, habits are actions/thoughts that subconsciously arise in response to a certain cues. For example, brushing teeth (habit) before bed (cue). A key part of a habit is how automatic the response is to the cue and is often used to measure habit strength. A strong habit is one that remains unchanged by variations in motivation or reward2. In other words, a habit is strong when you do the certain action despite low motivation or little reward from performing the action.


Why is this important for behaviour change?

Researchers have found that when stress increases and the capacity to deliberate decisions is lower, individuals tend to resort to their habits3. This bypasses the need to consciously deliberate what to do – which takes mental effort. In other words, we resort to our default settings when things get hectic. This means we could end up falling back into our old habits when stress starts to peak. However, it could also mean that, if we can change our habits, when stressed we could stick to our resolutions, commitments, decisions, and responsibilities. 


How to form a habit?

It’s clear that forming good habits can be helpful in us sticking to the new behaviours we want to adopt, but how do habits form? Habits are formed through repeatedly doing an action after a specific cue and having that action rewarded4. This helps strengthen the association in the mind between the cue and the action to the point where the cue is enough to cause the action even without the reward. As mentioned, habits are said to be formed when they display a degree of automaticity (i.e., happen without active thought) and there are ways to measure habit strength4. The desired action is usually driven by a goal or desired outcome from repeated actions2. For example, walking 15 minutes before dinner every day. The goal is to walk everyday to get the health benefits of regular physical activity. In theory, repeating this behaviour every day for a certain period will lead to it becoming a habit. One scientific study by Lally and colleagues reports that habits were formed between a minimum of 18 days and up to 254 days (with an average of 66 days)4. The authors concluded that simple behaviours (like eating behaviours) likely form habits quicker than more complex behaviours (like exercise). Interestingly, however, only half of the participants in this study actually formed habits (by their definition) – suggesting that, for some, habits may take longer...

A challenge that can interfere with forming a habit is stress3. Early in the habit forming process, motivation and incentive are more important as they tend to drive the repetition of the action4. Stress can throw a spanner in the works as we revert to what we know and what requires little decision-making and deliberation. This could lead us back to our old habit because it feels “easy”.

If/when this occurs, there are some strategies that have been put forward to help keep off the old habits2. One strategy is the “don’t do it” approach whereby you consciously remind yourself to not do a certain behaviour when you encounter the cue that promotes that response. This helps increase mindfulness around possible slip ups. Another strategy is changing the nature of the cue that have been associated with the old habit2. This commonly comes in the form of managing exposure to the cue. For example, having more healthy foods in the pantry and fewer unhealthy food options.


What if I miss a day?

Repetition is a key part of habit formation but sometimes life has other ideas. The work by Lally and colleagues4, who were one of the first to look at habit formation in a real-world setting, found that missing one day had no long term cost to the overall habit formation. However, work by Armitage and colleagues5 found that missing a week led to poor habit performance (measured by how automatic the habit is). These results unsurprisingly suggest that consistency is important when forming habits but fortunately, a single day missed is fine.

Bringing this all together, making your resolution into a habit may be an effective way to make it stick long term. Understanding how habits form helps us to be able to manipulate unwanted habits to make them good ones. Habits may form after as little as 18 days but can also take much longer.

To get in touch with the Sports Science Institute of South Africa Group for Research Implementation and Translation (GRIT) Research Consultants, get in touch with Warren Lucas at or call 021 650 5728 for enquiries. Read more about the SSISA GRIT Team here.


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Yours in Sports Science,

Sports Science Institute of South Africa



  1. Gardner B, Sheals K, Wardle J, McGowan L. Putting habit into practice, and practice into habit: A process evaluation and exploration of the acceptability of a habit-based dietary behaviour change intervention. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2014 Oct 30;11(1).
  2. Wood W, Rünger D. Psychology of habit. Annu Rev Psychol. 2016 Jan 4;67:289–314.
  3. Schwabe L, Wolf OT. Stress and multiple memory systems: from ‘thinking’to ‘doing.’ Trends Cogn Sci. 2013;17(2):60–8.
  4. Lally P, Van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur J Soc Psychol. 2010 Oct;40(6):998–1009.
  5. Armitage CJ. Can the theory of planned behavior predict the maintenance of physical activity? Heal Psychol. 2005 May;24(3):235–45.