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Can You Build a Fitness Habit in 21 Days?

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Despite writing about health and fitness for a living, several months ago -- ok, about 18 -- I fell off the workout wagon. I'd been regularly sweating it out in yoga and cycling classes for years, but with the appearance of new work responsibilities I quit cold turkey. I gained a few unwanted pounds and, despite attending fitness classes here and there, I wasn't able to get back that passion for exercise.

So when a 20-class, 25-day fitness challenge was announced at my local barre3 studio I signed up. I'd read (and even written) that 21 days -- three weeks! -- was all it took to form a new habit. Ready to give it a try I squeezed into my spandex and headed to class. There was only one problem: When I asked a couple of sports scientists if this three-week to a fitness habit theory held up, their overwhelming response was "No."

It turns out this "21-day to a habit" info is touted everywhere -- in magazine articles, at gyms -- but it's all based on one small study that took place back in the 50s. In the research, which came from a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz, amputees stopped feeling their phantom limbs after three weeks, which signaled a change in brain chemistry. The stat has become commonplace in self-help plans, but some researchers have questioned the validity of these findings as well as the application of the theory across all changes in habit. And then there's the whole matter of what actually defines a habit.

"I have a problem with applying the word 'habit' to exercise," explains James E. Maddux, Ph.D., a psychology professor at George Mason University. "'Habit' conjures up images of engaging in a mindless, automatic behavior, which fitness is not. If a person's goal is to make exercise that sort of habit -- like biting their nails -- they're already setting themselves up for failure."

That's not to say that committing to a goal of regular fitness won't work, just start thinking about making exercise a routine or a ritual more than a habit, suggests Maddux. It's a bit of semantics, but according to psychologists the difference is that routines and rituals are deliberate, purposeful, goal-oriented and mindful acts, rather than mindless ones.

For help forming a fitness plan into a routine, Ryan Rhodes, Ph.D., director of the University of Victoria's Behavioral Medicine Lab, has some practical tips. First up, physically set aside time in your schedule to be active, suggests Rhodes. He recommends penciling in workouts for three weeks so that fitness won't be "squeezed in" (or squeezed out). Taking this to heart, I registered up for my first week of barre3 classes. Check.

Next up: Find fitness buddies. Meeting friends for class would help keep me accountable and make the workouts more fun, says Rhodes. I talked a friend into joining me for the first session which helped ensure I made it out the door. Almost as soon as the music started pumping in that first class my legs, which hadn't done consistent exercise in a year and a half, were shaking. It was hard, but it felt good.

According to Maddux, noticing all of the benefits you get from working out -- such as that intoxicating burn I'd felt on day one -- will keep you coming back for more. Sure, I'd started the fitness challenge to shed a few pounds, but I really enjoyed the whole experience. The studios were gorgeous and, as a freelance writer who works from home, having a place to go each day was invaluable. Plus, everyone was nice! The instructors often remembered my name after just one class and I exchanged smiles with the other attendees during challenging sections of the workout -- only 99 leg lifts to go! -- creating the feel of a real group workout. Not surprisingly, I found my mood improving. I hadn't necessarily been in a funk, but treating myself to an hour of endorphin-boosting exercise set to a soundtrack of catchy tunes did a remarkable job at erasing my worries.

Then, on day 21, a funny thing happened. With the challenge nearing its end I found myself wanting to not only keep up my barre work, but also enroll at a gym that offered indoor cycling, a class I'd loved during my last fitness craze. I was hooked on the feeling. And then there were the results: On day 21 I also tried on an old pair of pants -- ones that hadn't fit in more than a year. They were snug, but they zipped. I'd been so focused on the other reasons to exercise -- the camaraderie, the daily diversion from work -- that I had started to edge toward this goal without my realizing it.

If you can't make fitness a true habit, maybe a better question is, at what point do you start craving exercise? When does it become something you look forward to enough to do regularly without putting up an internal fight? For me, it was 21 days, just like that mid-century report suggests. Exercise is never going to become something innate, like flossing, for any of us. But for me, whenever my enthusiasm starts to dwindle in the future I'll remind myself of the many reasons I have to get moving: to see my friends, to squeeze into my skinny jeans, to get my money's worth of a membership, to move my body, to lift my mood or to simply get out of the house.

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