The Learning Power of Habit

One of the keys to exercise improving your fitness is that humans are creatures of habit.

You probably didn’t think much about using the bathroom or preparing coffee or breakfast this morning. Your process for doing any of the above has probably become automatic. You have formed habits that eliminate your need to expend mental energy undergoing any of those tasks.

This is also why projects and complicated tasks can be so mentally tiring. Our minds are just as capable of fatigue as our bodies. When we are not used to doing something to the point of habit, we have to mentally work harder to do it because we have to think through it.

This is one reason why my 20 minute workout is so much easier and faster for me to do than someone else’s 45-60 minute workout, and one reason why if you were to try it you would initially find it more difficult.

I have gotten so accustomed to the exercises I am doing for my separate workouts that I don’t need to put a ton of thought into it during the moment, nor is the challenge of lifting a heavy weight compounded by the relative muscle confusion of having to work through a new, different exercise. This is often what pushes a lot of people away from exercise after a few workouts.

But, is that not harmful, as some fitness experts would say? Won’t that lead to training stagnation from the monotony of the same workout every day?

I don’t know… do runners just stop progressing once they’re used to the act of endurance running?

They obviously don’t, even though the physical act of running is very simple and never changes. Perhaps you may change your route or time of day you run. But notice that many people who do the same 3-8 mile run every day along the same route also appear to make substantial fitness progress. There may be some things they need to improve, and would need to change some habits to improve those shortcomings. But the daily habit has gotten and kept them in pretty good shape.

To progress in an exercise program, you need to change some variables. But many don’t realize how many variables exist in the most basic forms of exercise. Even, for example, within running the same 3 mile route every day… you can vary:

  • The pace you run that route
  • The direction you run that route
  • The time of day you run that route
  • Any changes in pace you run during that route (e.g. fartleks, speedwork)
  • The breathing patterns you follow while running that route
  • The temperature and conditions in which you run that route (you don’t usually control this)
  • Your warmup and recovery habits before and after the run

Add in a different route entirely, or change the distance you run, and now your run has all sorts of variables you can tinker with.

Likewise, you don’t need to change many variables to make progress in strength training. People who claim the need to change up an exercise program are thinking of expert and competitive bodybuilders and powerlifters, often people who have maxed out the weights available at the gym and can’t lift anything heavier in their standard exercise. They need to do something differently to continue to make progress.

You and I, meanwhile, are probably not in that boat. I know I am nowhere close to maxing out the available weights at the gym. The exercises I do with the weight I can lift are suitably challenging for now. The only variables I, and most people, need to worry about adjusting in a strength training program are:

  • The number of reps done
  • The weight used

That’s it. In fact, I do the same number of sets (4) and major upper body exercises (4) every time, and my only rep ranges used in a set are 6 reps, or 8 reps, with the exception of core exercises where I will do 12 reps. I have two blocks of exercises, and the only reason I ever diverge from any of those exercises is if the equipment needed is not available on that particular day. Even then, I have clear Plan B and C exercises that don’t vary either.

That hasn’t changed, and I see no reason to change those variable ranges in the foreseeable future. Even though I’m flexible with pivoting my workouts as needed, I keep as many variables the same as possible. The only circumstance under which I would consider wholesale changes, again, is if I maxed out the weight available at the gym on a given exercise.

Keeping as much the same as possible creates basic habits that allows me to focus more carefully on form, how the exercise feels. This gives me a more accurate gauge on my progress, and whether or not I need to do a higher number of reps (8 instead of 6) or increase the weight by 5-15 pounds so 4 sets of 6 reps is tough again.

This is similar to how a language learning app like Duolingo works. Duolingo is very big on users forming streaks, aka using the app to do at least one language lesson or practice session every single day.

I’m using Duolingo right now mostly to work on Spanish, because(despite years of scholastic classes in the subject) I don’t speak the language and understand too little of it. Given we have a large Latino population in the US and beyond, I feel like it’s important to learn more.

On Duolingo, I decided a few months ago to keep a streak going as long as I could. After using up a few of the Duolingo “streak freeze” bonuses after skipping/forgetting days, I realized the key to remembering to do a lesson every day was to quickly knock one out during an easy time to work them in… like in the morning while I drink coffee.

Doing a lesson is not too difficult: It takes maybe a few minutes. You just have to remember to sit down and do it. By making the habit of doing it when I first wake up my laptop, a daily lesson gets done and I don’t have to worry about doing it later.

I mention this because, after three straight months of doing anywhere from the bare minimum of lessons required to maintain the streak to several lessons at once whenever I have more time… I’m starting to mentally retain more Spanish words.

Three months ago, for example, I couldn’t have ever remembered that manzanas is Spanish for apples, but now the little daily lessons that force me to recall that information have made that knowledge ubiquitous. Now it’s as obvious to me as casa meaning house.

At some point, I may decide to get more serious about Duolingo and do a lot more lesson work every day, as well as work on other languages (I’ve done some work in German, French, Chinese, etc). But at least now I have formed the habit of checking in first thing and doing a little something.

You may have noticed one other habit I’ve improved recently. As I mentioned on August 1, I decided (after taking all of July off from writing) to write a post for Working Class Runner every single day in the month of August. Almost every morning I’ve sat down (after Duolingo) and decided to start writing on whatever subject I found relevant enough to discuss. Now, 14 days in, you’re looking at the 14th post this month. (Sure, I had a couple busy days where the post didn’t get done until the evening. But for the most part, I’ve written every morning)

I formed a habit, and that habit has produced a clear improvement in my comfort with the writing process. I’ve often been a fairly productive writer but had gotten away from it for a variety of reasons. And all it took to get back to it was to once again form a consistent habit of writing.

All of this is to say… don’t knock the repetition of a daily habit. As long as the habit is productive and positive, it will work for you and make you better, rather than be a problem.

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One thought on “The Learning Power of Habit

  1. […] the overall net calorie-burning effect is minor, but the hamfisted goal has certainly helped me be more consistent about moving around every day. Previously I would let days get away from me due to work and other […]

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