How to Hack Your Brain into Making Exercise Your Habit

Habits are extremely powerful. Ask anyone who has tried to stop biting their nails or stop smoking (turns out that it's much easier to overcome the nicotine addiction than to kick the habit of cigarette smoking). They'll tell you how powerful habits are.

The brain looooves forming habits. And they are extremely hard to ignore. This power can be used for good!

Neurologically, good and bad habits are indistinguishable. The brain will turn a healthy behavior into a habit just as easily as an unhealthy one. If you can harness this power, you can set yourself up for continued greatness. 

According to Charles Duhigg, Pulizter Prize-winning author of The Power of Habit, we are living in a golden age of understanding the neurology of behavior and habit formation. Utilizing this data, you can make daily exercise as automatic for you as flipping the light switch when you enter your room.

brain loves habit



The brain has a strong incentive to make any pattern into a habit.

Studies show that it takes about half the amount of brain energy to perform a habit versus thinking about or concentrating on your behavior.

These huge energy savings allow us to do far more with less energy. Evolutionarily, this is extremely advantageous. 



Habits are formed by a cue (or a trigger), a routine (behavior), and a reward. The reward leads you to repeat the behavior the next time the trigger occurs. This is the neurological loop that governs every habit.

exercise habit loop

Habits become incredibly strong when there is a craving for the reward. With exercise, the craving is easy to develop, because it develops naturally due to the addictive biological cocktail it releases that make you feel capable, happy, and successful.



reward of exercise

Exercise puts stress on your body. The brain perceives this stress, and reacts as it would to any fight-or-flight situation. It releases chemicals to fight stressed called endorphins, that block pain perception and is lead to euphoria.

This stress on your body also releases a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Facor. BDNF protects your brain cells from dying AND causes new brain cells to grow, effectively making your brain larger!

Specifically, it stops neurons from dying and grows new ones in the hippocamus, the area of the brain associated with memory, learning, and depression.


The flood of these exercise-induced chemicals is why we feel so positive, clear-headed, and capable after a good exercise bout. (This is also one of the many reasons exercise is such a good treatment for depression, anxiety, and memory dysfunction and loss.)

These chemicalsalong with the feelings they produceare addictive. In fact, their action on the brain is similar to heroine and morphine! With this incredibly satisfying reward coming with built-in craving for it, the effects of exercise fit perfectly into the craving-based habit loop. 

exercise reward and craving habit loop

If you are trying to develop an exercise habit and find it difficult to do with the exercise-induced high being the only reward, you can add an extra reward that you personally find enticing. You could, for example, add a reward such as twenty minutes of mindless, guiltless internet surfing ONLY AFTER you've worked out. 

I love to reward myself for a hard workout with a rich, delicious berry-banana protein smoothie. So delicious! And it feels indulgent without being an unhealthy reward for a healthy behavior.



If you are completely new to exercise or are in the depths of depression and don't know what to do with the exercise part of the exercise habit loop, don't worry! Just start really small. Try to work out for five to ten minutes a day. It builds the habit just the same.

Do basic exercises in your living room, like jumping jacks, pushups, squats, and crunches. Or just take a fast-paced walk around the block. You don't need to go to the gym or join a class. 

brisk walk

If you are suffering from depression and find exercise difficult, check out my five-minute depression fighter video that you can do anywhere to get your heart rate up and boost your mood in just five minutes! 

Even if your exercise routine is five to ten minutes of blood-pumping exercise three to five times a week, you WILL still develop the craving and routine.  



With the reward (exercised-induced high), and the routine (exercise) determined, we have to tackle the cue, or that thing that happens daily that will serve as the trigger for your new behavior.

And it can be any thing that happens regularly, such as waking up in the morning, leaving work, or feeling stressed. 

It could be visual, such as leaving your gym bag on the front seat of your car so you see it immediately upon leaving work, or leaving a bottle of water and your sneakers next to your bed so you get running first thing. It could be emotional, meaning that you train yourself to workout as a reaction to stress, anger, or loneliness.  

How I Developed a Strong Cue

When I started exercising regularly after a devastating life event in my early adult life, I found that exercising immediately after work was best for my schedule. I joined a gym that was equidistant between my office and my home. 

I packed a gym bag every other night, put it in front of my door (I couldn't open the door without moving the bag), and took it with me to work every other morning. When I left work, the gym was impossible to avoid or ignore because I drove right by it everyday on the way home. 

Whether I felt like it or not, I went to the gym. When I really didn't feel like working out, I told myself that I would just go for ten minutes of stretching. I'd always get at least a little bit of a workout in. 

Soon, going from the office to the gym each day became an automatic part of my day, like eating lunch or brushing my teeth. It's just what I did. 

In addition to the leaving-work cue, I simultaneously developed an emotional trigger that makes me want to exercise when I feel any strong negative emotion. When I began exercising as treatment for severe depression and anxiety, I was exercising when I felt stressed, angry, helpless, or overwhelmed (which was most of the time).

Now, after years of practicing my new, healthy habits, I automatically want to get into the gym or go for a run when I have a strong negative emotion. I intuitively know that it is the most effective head clearer, stress reliever, and anger releaser.

It's so much better than my old ways of coping (junk food, self-harm, getting drunk, doing drugs), and its effects on my life have been transformational.

Forming an exercise habit is like predetermining that you will make the decision to exercise in a future situation where you would otherwise choose not to. It's like a superpower.

Research on the neurology of habit shows that youyes, YOU!can change any unhealthy habit and create any positive, successful habits. You don't need will power to stick to a new exercise routine nearly as much as you need the habit. 

Using these tools to take back control of your habits gives you the power to truly revolutionize your health and your life. Check out this article for a detailed guide to habit formation and change. 

And for those of you who hate exercise, there are tons of ways to actually make exercise enjoyable! Trust me! I will be introducing some unconventional methods right here on the blog next week. 

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