newsletter Apr 15, 2022

By Jacob Larsen

Beginning with wrestling and soccer, Jake has been immersed in fitness nearly his whole life.  Personal training and studying exercise in college were the natural progression of that passion.  Competing locally in bodybuilding and powerlifting, Jake currently studies exercise at university and does online coaching at

Behavior Change for Health and Fitness

The experts on behavior change and habit formation are not medical professionals.  They’re not gym owners or fitness gurus.  It’s not even life coaches (sorry guys).  If that were the case, the world would be a completely different place.  When you went to the doctor and he said, “You probably need to eat less fast food,” you actually would.  When your trainer said, “I need you to drink more water,” you actually would.  Unfortunately, most of the health community has very little idea what behavior change looks like. 

The real experts are consumer-goods companies.

Think Coca-Cola, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, Nike, etc.  These are the big players whose success is linked directly to the fact that you use their products and keep coming back for more; till the day you die.  Now, before you get too far off into the weeds on whether or not you think big business is the devil, let’s reel it in and stay on task. If we were half as good at changing behavior as these guys are, obesity would be a thing of the past.  So, what’s the secret?

Actually, there are a few secrets.  In a New York Times article titled “Warning: Habits May Be Good for You,” Charles Duhigg reports on the story of how Dr. Val Curtis used the advice of Proctor and Gamble’s consumer psychology department to cure disease in Africa.  The principles she learned apply directly to health and fitness worldwide.  Imagine selling strength training as well as Nike sells shoes; you would change the world, and likely retire to a private island in the Caribbean.

What are the secrets? Create habits, attach cues, and harness immediate positive feedback.

Create Habits

            The first part is simple: create sustainable and consistent habits.  Carol Berning, a retired consumer psychologist from Proctor and Gamble declared, “OUR products succeed when they become part of daily or weekly patterns… Creating positive habits is a huge part of improving our consumers’ lives, and it’s essential to making new products commercially viable.”  (1) Think of your tooth brushing routine: you use a Colgate or Crest product 2x every day.  Did your ancestors brush their teeth multiple times per day?  No, but then again, they were toothless if they lived past 70.  Creating habits form the base of long-term success.

Attach Cues

            The things we do habitually, we do in response to regular cues.  Creating habits depends on our ability to use these cues to help instead of hinder us.  Cues can take the form of actions, objects, moods, or people.  The smell of coffee signals your morning routine, sitting on the couch signals a desire to snack, feeling down signals a desire to skip meals (or binge on ice cream), seeing your spouse signals you to smile (hopefully), etc.  Using these signals to your advantage is essential.  The things that signal a habit need to be daily and positive; if it’s not frequent enough, or inhibitory, your habit will never stick.

Harness Feedback

            Immediate positive feedback is the missing link for most of us.  Creating habits makes sense, attaching cues happens fairly naturally, but immediate positive feedback rarely happens accidentally.  Think of the soap or body wash that you use daily.  Being clean is a long-term benefit of daily use of soap, but that’s not an immediate positive response.  Proctor and Gamble, and soap companies everywhere, have discovered that putting pleasing scents in their soaps creates an immediate positive response.  You don’t have to wait to get the benefit.  Though soap scents are an artificial benefit, the immediacy of it rewards you enough to create a habit, and you can then reap the long-term natural benefits of cleanliness.  Seek out the immediate positive feedback, even if it has to be artificial, because that is the fastest way to create a long-term habit and gain the long-term benefits.

Health and Fitness

            So how does one engineer behavior change as a coach or health professional?  Let’s take regular strength training as an example.  The long-term benefits are many, but the short-term benefits are few.  Being sweaty and tired are some of the only natural immediate effects, and I’d hardly call them compelling benefits.  So, we need to create artificial, immediate benefits.  Having a workout partner creates an immediate social reward (assuming you like the person).  Pleasant tasting (or just really highly caffeinated) pre-workout drinks or meals can create an immediate reward.  Feeling good in your athletic wear can be a reward.  Hitting a PR is an immediate reward.  The first step in creating a strength training habit is simply compounding these immediate rewards- put on your athletic wear, drink your pre-workout, meet up with your workout partner, hit a PR, and you’ll feel like a million bucks.  I guarantee you’ll be back tomorrow to do it again.

            The second step is using cues to your advantage.  Pick a time of day, a place you go, a thing that gets you in the mood, etc. and use them to signal your workout.  When I worked in Paris, I lifted immediately after work.  It took maybe three days for me to clearly associate 5:00, taking my tie off, and walking down a certain road with lifting.  From then on, those things signaled time to work out.  Netflix, on the other hand, always signals couch time.  Removing negative cues (like Netflix) and establishing positive cues (5:00 every day) helps to create the necessary subconscious cues.

            Leveraging immediate feedback and cues is the fastest way to create a habit.  Creating habits that happen frequently (ideally daily) is the key to behavior change.  Get good at coaching behavior change and you can sell anything (not to mention change lives).  The day that health professionals can sell exercise and nutrition like Nike sells shoes is the last day in obesity’s deadly reign.