It’s an all too familiar story: we eat too much over the festive period, and then commit to becoming fitter and healthier in January. A couple of months later, those ambitions are mostly lost and it’s likely that we feel guilty for not sticking to our new healthy lifestyle. But research shows that we may not be entirely to blame.
In fact, it seems that genetics may have a part to play in whether or not we are likely stick to that New Year’s resolution.
The study of the human genome (i.e. our DNA and what makes us who we are) has revealed several genes associated with habit formation. Some of the most interesting of these are associated with dopamine receptors. Dopamine is commonly known as the “pleasure” hormone, but when it comes to habits it serves an even more important purpose: it’s shown to increase our willingness to endure things that we don’t enjoy. This means that if you have higher levels of dopamine you are more likely to go back to the gym even if you are not really enjoying it, than someone with lower levels of dopamine.
So we just need more dopamine right?
Fun experiences increase your levels of dopamine, so surely everyone who does a LES MILLS™ workout experiences the magic should come back again and again? Actually no! This is where your dopamine receptors come in. The dopamine receptors are responsible for telling your brain how much dopamine is in your system, which is directly linked to the feelings of being able to handle an exercise session when you don’t really feel like it. So, the more dopamine receptors you have working, the more your body is responsive to the hormone, and it is your genes that mostly control which dopamine receptors are switched on or off (specifically D1 and D2 receptors).
Essentially, if you are that person who, when going to the gym starts to feel like a chore, struggles to get off the sofa, it may not be all your fault: your genes are at least partly to blame.
How much are we controlled by our genes?
This is an ongoing argument, but one thing is certain: genes do not 100 percent control our behavior, which means that there are things are we can do to build the habit of exercise, regardless of genes.
FIVE WAYS TO MAKE YOUR EXERCISE HABIT STICK
- Do exercise you enjoy
There is something for everyone when it comes to fitness, so the key thing is to do things that you enjoy. If you don’t know what you enjoy, then try everything! Dip your toes in the water – there are plenty of options.
- Don’t overdo it
This one is key – people frequently start off an exercise routine by doing as much as they can as frequently as possible. The bottom line is, this just isn’t sustainable in the long run, and can lead to people giving up. So, although you may want to spend every day doing your favorite workouts, be careful to take regular rest days where you do not exercise. This will let your body and mind recover. Good news, you can still get your Les Mills fix on your rest days – LES MILLS MINDFULNESS sessions are available free On Demand.
- Be nice to yourself – it’s okay to miss a day!
Set goals for how much you want to train, and then don’t beat yourself up if you miss one. Studies have shown that missing one planned session is completely fine. Not only will it not really affect you from an overall health and fitness point of view, it also doesn’t affect whether or not you are going to build a habit. So, if you miss an exercise session, try not to worry about it too much, and recommit to your goals as soon as possible.
- It takes time to build a habit – lots of time
Studies have shown that it can take anything from 18 to 254 days to build a habit, depending on the individual. That is a huge range! So please don’t worry if you see someone who can get into the flow of things and keep doing it after a few weeks, you may be one of those people who it takes longer to build a habit. One thing is for certain though, you can’t build a habit of something you don’t do!
- Celebrate successes
In this busy world, we don’t celebrate our successes enough. Celebrating success in fitness is crucial to building a habit, as it provides positive re-enforcement of a good habit. Successes can be small or large. So, post on social media and let the whole world celebrate with you!
The bottom line
Some people are genetically pre-dispositioned to be better at building habits, but that does not mean that you can’t build a healthy habit of exercising by choosing something you enjoy and not beating yourself up about missing one session.
Descartes, an ancient philosopher, is quoted as saying:
‘I think, therefore I am’
This holds true for building habits. If you think you don’t try, then you will never build the habit. So adopt a positive mental attitude, tell yourself and others that you will, and you can sustain it this time round, and who knows, despite genes, it may well be true.
Mike Trott is a UK-based fitness professional who specializes in sports personality psychology and sports exercise physiology. He has conducted academic research into group exercise interventions and personality, exercise addiction, and foam rolling physiology, and is also a multi-award-winning Les Mills instructor, trainer and presenter.