Neuroscience Of Habit Formation

When it comes to changing habits related to health and fitness, most people’s biggest struggles are in the initial period that revolves around undoing the habit patterns they are subconsciously created over many years. This phenomenon has neuro-scientific basis. We are evolutionarily designed to conserve energy and minimize the need to think. Thus, we create certain patterns of stability so that we don’t have to think and decide about the same set of actions or decision time and again. Once we establish that a route we have taken is relatively “safe” and has no immediate consequences that we can see at the time, we build a habit out of it. This is great if the habits are behaviours that will later lead to better health and well-being. But if these habits are slowly going to cause damage to our bodies, then this is a problem that needs to be solved.

picture of a network of neurons

Unfortunately, a danger that is not seen as immediate or life threatening is not acknowledged by our bodies. Instead, we are likely to repeat the same habits again and again till we employ our willpower aka our conscious mind to the task of overcoming these autopilot behaviours. This requires an unusual amount of energy and exertion of will power on our part. However, with time new patterns are formed in the brain, new neural connections are made and start to undo the old habits. This is when we feel more in control of our behaviours and exercising or going for a run becomes second nature to us instead of having to push ourselves to do it every time.

Does this mean that we are now sorted for the rest of our life with productive habits? Not really. Once a habit has been formed, research also indicates that some work and energy is required to maintain it. However, the level of energy and dedication required is significantly less than our formative efforts. It also means that you develop muscle memory as you would with any other skill. So if you were to slack off at some stage for a few weeks or even months, when you eventually get back to exercising, you will tend to reach your original strength or intensity level much faster than the first time around.