Exhausted, overscheduled, and sore? We’ve all had those days—the ones where it feels like the gym just isn’t an option. But a new study published in Health Psychology offers a way to combat that feeling: Working out at the same time every day. Researchers surveyed 123 students and faculty at the University of Iowa, asking questions about their exercise habits. They found that the most important thing for consistent workouts is what they call an “instigation habit.” Stronger instigation habits successfully predicted long-term consistency in workouts.
So what exactly is an instigation habit? It’s a cue—something you see, hear, or even feel—that tells you it's time to get to your workout. For many, this means the sound of the alarm going off. Let’s say you go on a run first thing every morning. When you wake up, you're much less likely to lie in bed weighing the pro’s and cons of going on a run or wondering if you can reschedule to another time. Instead, you just get up and go. At least, much more than people who run at all different times.
“When you pick a specific time of day to exercise, then all kinds of [other] things are the same each time you engage in the behavior, so those become part of the memories associated with the behavior of exercising,” explains Art Markman, professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and author of Smart Change.
He also points out that the longer you stick to your schedule, the stronger that association becomes—in other words, getting yourself to the gym will get easier and easier every time.
“Over time, you store more and more memories that relate that environment with exercise,” he says. “When you get into that situation again, it automatically retrieves the memory of what you should be doing, which helps you to engage the goal to exercise again.”
That isn’t to say you should be doing the exact same thing every day once you’re actually in the gym. According to the study, you’re not more or less likely to skip a day based on whether you repeat the same workout. But variety can help you to avoid zoning out during exercise. Staying engaged in what you’re doing lets you get the most out of your workout. Plus, changing things up can help you build balanced strength. When you combine those powerful, engaged workouts with the consistency that a strong habit creates, you'll be well on your way to achieving your goals.