We all brush our teeth daily (I hope), and many of us do this multiple times each day. We can’t brush our teeth only on Sundays and expect to keep them strong and healthy, right? You’ve been doing this for so long that’s it’s probably a well-established habit. I bet you do it without even thinking. Not brushing your teeth isn’t an option.

Exercise is something to view in the same no­option way. I want physical activity to be a habit that is so automatic you won’t even have to think about it. Why? The benefits of exercise are countless. It has been shown to work as effectively as medication to increase fitness and diminish excess weight, depression, heart disease, blood pressure, anxiety, fatigue, cancer, insomnia, and so on—you just can’t beat. And there’s no better resolution you could make for the new year than making good health a habit.

Recipe for a New Habit

Scientists who study habits now understand that while you can never truly eliminate a habit, you can effectively reshape a bad habit into a good one. The trick is in applying the time and effort to analyze the existing behaviors that make up an undesirable habit, identifying what makes it happen, and then replacing key elements to change undesirable behaviors into desirable ones. Here’s how:

At the core of every habit is what neurological scientists call a loop that consists of three parts:

A cue: What tells your brain to start the pattern.
A routine: The pattern of behavior or habit you are creating.
A reward: What makes your brain learn to crave the routine.

To create a new habit—like daily exercise—you need to choose a cue, like laying out your workout clothes and a DVD or computer bookmark or printout for the workout (like this 15-minute do-anywhere routine), in place the night before.

Then pick a reward, like spending 30 minutes on Facebook, watching an episode of a show you love, or eating a square of dark chocolate.Choose something you can do immediately after exercising so you feel the connection between the two.

After several days, when you see your workout clothes laid out, your brain will start craving the reward (choose the one that works best for you). After a week or two, you can start to phase out the planned rewards, because simply doing the routine and feeling the benefits of the exercise will be reward enough.

Reminder: As I’ve written about before, you also have to extinguish what I call “escape routes.” Don’t make it easy to delay your goal or lower your standards.

Click here to buy Joel Harper’s book, Mind Your Body: 4 Weeks to a Leaner, Healthier Life. And click here to hear our fabulous podcasts with Joel.

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