How can we develop new, productive exercise habits? We know that our old, drug-taking habits produced instantaneous, abundant neurotransmitter-cascade “rewards.” In fact, drugs provide approximately 10 times the neurochemical reward that “normal” healthy or desirable activities do (4). This was why it was so easy to get hooked.
Those addiction-oriented pathways will be with us forever. But the less we reinforce them (by abstaining from psychoactive chemicals and addictive behaviors like gambling, excessive shopping, etc.), the more they atrophy (weaken or deteriorate). Anyone who has had to wear a cast on an arm or leg for a month or more can attest to how a lack of use results in atrophy. We want our addiction-oriented thinking and old behaviors’ pathways to atrophy. One way to do that is to replace bad habits with good.
An action or activity is a habit when it is automatic. Learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car is automatic for most of us. We don’t need to think about how we do it; we just go do it! But learning that ability required practice and repetition. Making something a habit, (like eating right), takes conscious effort and perseverance over a period of about 90 days.
Remember, these new, healthy activities, like exercise, don’t have the same immediate super-strong rewards that psychoactive drugs gave us. So we must persevere even when we don’t feel so good, or so rewarded. We must continue to “exercise” that new behavior on a daily basis or else it will self-extinguish.
Programming new habits is critical because we all know from experience that willpower is not enough – whether it is in recovery or maintaining an exercise or diet plan. Therefore, it is critical that we invest the time, energy and commitment to develop exercise as a habit. That means regular, consistent action augmented by Small Wins SM each and every day, for at least 90 days.
To prevent relapse, new healthy behaviors must become an auto-pilot function — a good habit driven by our mid-brain.