How to Break [Into] a [Good] Habit: Daily Exercise

I had always believed in the “21 Days” myth…until I tried becoming a vegetarian in high school and failed miserably. During my freshman year, I decided to give up meat entirely for Lent because 1. I really sought an intense challenge (because I absolutely love BBQ, and love is a mild word of affection) and 2. I wanted a healthier lifestyle and knew I would become more conscientious of my caloric intake if I abided by a diet with restrictions. The Catholic season of Lent lasts 40 days, and this duration was nearly twice as many days as I thought were required to break into a new habit. Surprisingly, I didn’t become lethargic or weak with the change. Almost unconsciously, however, on the day after Easter, I ordered an omelette containing meat (my parents didn’t think to stop me) and didn’t realize I had lapsed until my breakfast was all gone. Oops.

The “21 Days” myth is actually derived from a plastic surgeon’s observation of his patients in the 1950s. After a procedure, it took each of his patients, on average, 21 days to become acquainted with seeing his or her new (or lack thereof a) feature. Perhaps a little bias was present, but when Dr. Maltz observed his own adjustment period to new behaviors, there was also a 21 day transition. Thus, the myth was born.

But more studies did not substantiate Maltz’s claim. Social psychologists have found that it can take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for a behavior to become automatic for any particular individual, and really, there is no predictable average. Clearly, 40 days was not even enough for me.

This news may seem pretty disheartening, and I can speak with a little personal experience that it can be extremely difficult to find inspiration for a goal located so far down the road. I can focus this post on my career goal, but instead, it’s going to be about my desire to incorporate exercise into my daily schedule.

For a significant period of my life, I felt that I was completely invincible. I couldn’t become any less intelligent. I couldn’t lose any friends. I couldn’t put on any more weight. Nothing could stop me.

…well that was 7th grade. Now I’m about to start my sophomore year in college, and while it would have been way easier to have had a reality check back then as opposed to right now, it’s better late than never.

Playing a lot of soccer in high school really helped take my mind off of the necessity of working out to stay in shape because I was on a team and I had a responsibility to other people: my teammates, coaches, trainers, and school. I didn’t really think about my role as an individual on Poly’s soccer team. I was so willing to sit on the bench when the team needed me to, set up the perfect play for someone else to score, and let my friends bask in the athletic limelight as they went on to play D1 soccer in college. Heck, I was fine with the quote in the articles highlighting our D3 state championship victory: and Poly inched ahead after “so-and-so” struck an excellent finish behind the keeper after “a brilliant through-ball by center-midfielder Jackie Olive.” My attitude didn’t mean that I didn’t play my heart out when I was on the field because I most certainly tried my best in every single game and could not have put more effort into any instance throughout my four years on the squad. How this all relates to my goal of exercising daily: it was so easy to push myself to my limits and test my boundaries when I felt a sense of responsibility that was greater than myself.

I don’t play soccer on a competitive team here at Rice. I’m a coxswain on Rice’s rowing team, and while I tried to work out with the rowers whenever possible during the school year, it was always hard to gain that sort of training time when the team needed me (and I, myself, did want to) improve my coxswaining abilities. While I was obtaining valuable practice time for that role, I began to notice that I wasn’t taking care of my own personal well-being as much as I had hoped. During the school year, I had made it a goal to work out every day this summer. What with organic chemistry and such, that goal fell under the cracks in time, but I dug it out (thanks to the occurrences of one day last week) and have been consistently running 2-3 miles every night for the past week in tandem with eating smaller and healthier meals (and snacking less). Even after only a week, I already feel so much more fit and accomplished. I get less out-of-breath after each mile during my workouts and have even managed to cut approximately 45 seconds from my mile time since I began running earlier this week.

So what happened on that particular day last week? Stress had already been building with my first Orgo II midterm coming up last Thursday. Since forever, my mom has always harped on me to lose a few pounds because “they will make a significant difference.” Because she has always been lecturing me on this subject, I had begun tuning these words out. Unfortunately, because it was almost routine for me to hear this sort of “advice,” I didn’t really make much of it. Now, I regret not setting aside time in my schedule one summer in the past to have just listened to her and “gotten it over with.” It took more playfully-intended jokes from others one night, my taking personal offense, and the final realization about my mom’s words all these years for me to seriously decide to make this lifestyle change. I didn’t get back to my dorm until around 10 pm that night, but the time of day didn’t stop me because I started running at 11:30 pm (after I finished my homework) and got back in around 1 am. I still run even if I have to at midnight (unexpected benefit: it’s the coolest around this time during the summer in Houston).

So much of college (and the rest of your life after high school, pretty much, until you marry your future spouse who will nag you all the time–but even that can only go so far) is about inculcating a sense of personal responsibility and self-diligence. But there are a few things that you can get away with accomplishing by relying on others, without actually relying on others.

Tip #1: You can do what I did in high school with soccer. Join a team that’ll push you to your physical boundaries and endow you with a sense of responsibility towards a collective effort. I’m a little bit of a people-pleaser, and one of the worst feelings I can possibly have is letting down others who have been counting on me. And nothing feels better than gazing into the shining eyes of your teammates after a victory (or even a valiant effort that unfortunately ended in a defeat), knowing that you’d fight tooth and nail for each other.

Tip #2: Whether they’re your family members, close friends, or acquaintances “who you say hi to and have decent conversation with but don’t really spill your guts to,” surround yourself with people who can dish the hard truth. You will not like hearing it, but their statements will motivate you to make serious lifestyle changes in record time. I am proud that most of the time I can push myself to accomplish really big tasks, but sometimes, you don’t realize that some tasks deserve more weight than they’re given in your own mind. That’s when other people can help.

Tip #3: Don’t give up after you make a mistake. A small lapse in judgment and action won’t detract from your overall progress and commitment to a long-term goal. Treat your failure as a scientist would treat his or her own: learn from your mistakes and develop alternate strategies to prevent them from re-occurring.

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