Create a Good Habit Loop

The Strategy of “Survival of the Fittest”

We all have bad habits, some of us more than others. It may be a coffee and donut on the way to work, or the 3 hours of television every night of the week. Habits are an interesting necessity that at some point probably kept us alive,  from an evolutionary perspective. Unfortunately, the habits we’ve formed over the last 50 years are for the most part contributing to our early demise.

As far as psychologists can determine, habit loops are formed neurologically to entice us to repeat a pattern. Consider an early cave man or woman looking for food during a time of scarcity. If they went out early enough, chances are they would find food sooner than those who went out later. If they found food, they would be able to eat, and as a result survive longer; perpetuating their genetic material while those that got up later probably were less likely to survive. This is essentially a "survival of the fittest" (or smartest) strategy that allowed us to be here today.

In that case, getting up early is the “cue”, as psychologists would term it. Searching for food is considered the “routine”, while finding food and eating it is called the “reward”. If this sequence occurs even once, it is more likely that the person would repeat it to get the same reward.

Habit loops can be negative. Take the person who feels tired and sluggish in the morning which acts as a cue. She takes the same route to work inducing the routine of stopping for coffee and donuts, followed by the caffeine in the coffee and the sugar and fat in the donut flooding her body with a stimulating combination of neuro-chemical rewards.  To stop this bad habit loop requires disruption: ie. take a different route to work to avoid the drive-through.

As for creating a better habit (such as losing ten pounds), you start by identifying the cue. This could be something positive, for example a picture of a realistic physique you aspire to work towards. Alternatively (or additionally), you can use a negative cue such as looking at an unflattering picture of yourself to bring to mind what you want to change.

The next step would be to identify the routine you will need to achieve this goal. While attention to diet is imperative, let’s just focus on exercise for the sake of brevity. The routine could be going to the gym 3 days per week, for 45 minutes.

Lastly, identify the reward you want. Ask yourself for something easy to achieve. For example “I want to feel better at the end of my workout than I did at the beginning”. This is almost guaranteed, so it is a good, positive statement to use. If you use this habit loop consistently, you are much more likely to create and maintain a habit that will support your goal of losing ten pounds.

Take some time to consider the habits you have and which serve you well and which don’t. Think about the cues, routines and rewards you get from both good and bad habits and start to reprogram what you do and how you do it to get more of what you want and less of what you don’t.



Rod Macdonald is the Vice President of Canadian Fitness Professionals (canfitpro). For more information on Canada’s largest provider of fitness education, visit

Categories: Exercise Tips & Techniques