As obesity has become an epidemic in the developed world, behavioral researchers have focused on promoting regular exercise as one of the solutions to the multi-faceted problem. But as a ‘lifestyle factor’, exercise is a behavior that not only needs to be initiated but maintained across life transitions and in always-changing circumstances that often present barriers to regular repetition. Our field is well versed in the mechanisms of behavior initiation; However, the factors involved in its maintenance are less well known.
When a behavior is consistently repeated long term, many theorists agree that the behavior becomes habitual in that it is automatically triggered by environmental cues that have accompanied the behavior since its initiation. Whether a complex behavior such as regular physical exercise, which can occur in a variety of contexts (e.g., gym, home, as part of a commute, occurring despite fluctuations in weather), and manifest itself in a variety of forms (e.g., walking for transport, walking for exercise, aerobics, weight lifting, playing sports), can be conceived as habitual remains to be resolved. As a result, my research attempts to identify if and how exercise can be conceptualized as a habit, as defined by existing habit literature. Specifically, I am interested in finding the maintenance mechanisms in addition to contextual/environmental cues. Once these have been identified, interventions can be tailored to characteristics of the behavior or the individual so as to make them as effective as possible.