Exercise habit formation in new gym members: a longitudinal study
Science has shown that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per week is associated with the prevention of at least 25 different chronic diseases. With that being said it is important to understand the behavior that results in individuals consistently participating in MVPA. Research suggests that both conscious intention and unconscious processes, called dual process, work together to form behavior that would cause an individual to participate in consistent MVPA. The effect of unconscious processes is said to lead to the formation of habits which scientists believe is the main cause of repetitive behavior of physical activity. The purpose of this study is to understand habit formation in gym goers. The focus of this study had three objectives, the first being to test the dual process approach where habit was tested while conscious intention was controlled. The second objective was to understand habit formation which would tell us how long it takes for habits to form and how they form. The third and final objective was to predict habit development and predict what kind of environment best leads to habit formation.
111 adults between the ages of 18 and 65 and who had joined a gym or recreation facility within the past two weeks participated in this study. A twelve week longitudinal design was used for this study which was the average time required for habit formation in a prior study. Participants filled out a baseline survey upon consent to the study and were followed up with three more questionnaires at weeks six, nine, and twelve. Seven variables were measured when conducting this study and they included exercise behavior, exercise habit, intention, reward, consistency, environment, and behavioral complexity. Through a dual process approach a linear mixed model was used to understand how intention and habit predicted exercise behavior over time. This model was also used to determine if frequency of behavior was a factor when determining length of time for habit formation. Lastly the linear mixed model was used to determine if antecedents such as complexity and environment predicted habit formation.
The results of this study showed that through the dual process approach both habit and intention were equivalent and significant factors for predicting exercise behavior over time. The linear mixed model showed that frequency had a significant impact on habit formation. 63.8% of participants who exercised four or more days a week showed high habit formation by the end of the study. Only 22.6% of participants who exercised 4 or less days a week showed high habit formation. When the linear mixed model was used to measure the effect the antecedents had on predicting habit formation over the course of the study, consistency demonstrated the largest effect on predicting habit formation. Low behavioral complexity had the next largest effect followed by environment and then reward.
The following study backed up its hypothesis and although baseline research showed no significant effect of habit and intention on exercise behavior, over time both variables showed to have a significant effect on exercise behavior. Exercise habit was shown to form at about 6 weeks for participants who exercised at least four days a week. Consistency and low behavioral complexity were shown to cause the greatest habit formation over time. With the results of this study it shows that exercise professionals should make consistent exercise schedules for their clients as well as making their workouts fun and skill appropriate in order to aid habit formation.