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Hacks for Building Healthy Habits

Habits are not magical phenomena but the result of neurological processes that can be studied and understood. The discovery of how to shape your habits is no secret–it has been one of the most critical findings in psychology in the last century.

In 2006, a team of researchers at Duke University led by Dr. Andrew Newberg scanned the brains of people who had just formed a new habit, such as biting their nails. The researchers found that a particular part of the brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, was active when the participants concentrated on the new habit. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that allows people to control their impulses and make decisions in their long-term interests.

Interestingly, the prefrontal cortex was not active when the participants were engaged in the habit itself. The practice had been learned and was now being controlled by a different part of the brain, the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia are a primitive part of the brain that controls the body’s routines. Once a habit has been learned, the basal ganglia essentially take over, allowing the person to perform the habit automatically.

The fascinating thing about this study is that it showed definitively that a habit, as it is forming, has a lifecycle that can be tracked and orchestrated. A habit is not created by a single event but by a long sequence of repeated actions over time. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the last step in this process, the decision to act on the habit. But it is the basal ganglia that are responsible for setting the habit in motion.

Why We Do What We Do

The human brain is a powerful, efficient machine. Your brain is always looking for ways to make life easier. Even though this might sound like the opposite of an intelligent brain, the truth is that your brain does not want to invest too much effort. The human brain wants to work smart, not hard. Once a habit is formed, the brain will no longer be involved in decision making and instead divert its full attention to other tasks. In other words, your brain goes into autopilot.

If you want to change a habit, you need to break the sequence of actions responsible for it. You need to find a way to disrupt the routine embedded in the basal ganglia.

It is not easy to do this, but some techniques can help. According to Charles Duhigg, in his best-selling book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” forming a habit consists of three stages:

  1. Cue: a signal that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and activate the habit.
  2. Routine: the behavior itself.
  3. Reward: the satisfying feeling you get after completing the routine.

Over time, this sequence becomes neurologically encoded, and the habit becomes automatic. Understanding this sequence of how habits are formed has important implications for anyone trying to change their behavior, like adopting a healthier lifestyle.

Is Cognitive Ease the Secret to Success?

If you are going to form a new habit, understanding how your mind fluctuates between autopilot and encoding might be the secret to your success. In “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Nobel Prize Laureate Daniel Kahneman argues that whether you are conscious or not, your brain will be busy working out its calculations.

The brain is always asking questions to do so:

  • What’s new?
  • Is there any change?
  • Are there any threats?
  • Should I redirect my attention and do something else?

Your cognitive state can be determined depending on how your brain answers these questions. According to Kahneman, your brain primarily operates in two systems: 1 and 2. System 1 is automatic and quick, like actions set in motion by the basal ganglia. It does not deal with much effort. System 2, on the other hand, lives in the prefrontal cortex. It gives all effort to any mental activity that needs it. System 1 solves problems effortlessly, while system 2 demands strenuous thought. System 2 cannot work when an individual’s mental efforts are exhausted or depleted. System 1 cannot take over until System 2 has done the prework of learning a new series of steps to act.

Even if you know how to complete the actions and let System 1 take over, variables can throw you back into System 2 thinking at any time. In other words, if an action conforms to your encoded understanding of the situation, your cognitive range is easy, System 1 takes over. If a new variable is introduced that threatens your encoded knowledge of the situation, then System 2 goes to work. It is about the level of effort required plus unexpected or unmet demands.

Your range of cognitive ease is influenced by an extensive network of different inputs and outputs. For instance, cognitive ease is induced when you listen to a speaker while in a good mood. On the other hand, watching a video that is not clear, reading an article with a poor font, or listening to a lecturer while in a bad mood can cause cognitive strain. The effects are interchangeable, and the brain is mighty, so you can form habits that compel you to operate more frequently in either system, as required.

If we saw and utilized System 1 as the brain’s mechanism to work smart and not hard, then the goal is to identify habits we want to achieve through the lens of achieving System 1 thinking. A measure of cognitive ease is thus a window into how we can act to direct our brains to work for us and not against us.

The results of being in a state of cognitive ease are:

  • A good mood
  • Liking what you see
  • Believing what you hear
  • Trusting your intuitions
  • Being comfortable with your current situation

The results of cognitive strain are:

  • Becoming more vigilant and suspicious
  • Placing more effort into your current activity
  • One is less comfortable but makes few errors
  • Less intuitive
  • Less creativity

Why Cognitive Ease is Key

The best athletes all have one thing in common: they make their sport look easy. This is not because they are naturally gifted – in fact, they work incredibly hard to achieve their skill level. It is because they have mastered the art. By learning to control their body and focus their energy, they can perform at their best with minimal effort. They flow, operating entirely in System 1.

Exercise is, by definition, a strenuous activity that requires the brain and the body to work in sync. Not everyone who starts a fitness routine finishes it, and the majority of people who commit to an exercise schedule abandon their efforts before the program becomes a habit. This can be attributed to any block that prevents a person from committing to the “cue—routine—reward” loop required to form a new habit.

Reducing the mental burden and moving into System 1 thinking is particularly difficult when learning to exercise a habit. Your brain is unconsciously making calculations based on several questions. One of those questions, “is there any change?” Another, “are there any threats?” If you struggle to grasp movements quickly, you will appear the opposite of a professional athlete. The more awkward your movements appear to others, the more you risk drawing attention to yourself, further cascading your brain to unconsciously work against you.

Without sufficient understanding or practice, exercising on your own will inevitably send your brain into System 2. Your energy reserves will be invested in thinking rather than exercising effectively. Exercise will leave you mentally exhausted—which is the exact opposite of the mental fortitude and resilience you are probably seeking to gain from exercising.

A strategy that can help you move past the beginner stage is to practice chunking. With chunking, you break tasks down into smaller, more manageable pieces. To pick up an exercise habit by chunking, you can start by committing to ten minutes a day and then increase the duration as you get more comfortable. This will allow you to preserve your energy and prevent mental exhaustion. It will help set your expectations in pace with the time it takes to pick up a new habit. Once you have the routine down, it will be much easier to increase the duration and intensity of your training.  

The final cognitive trick is to seek out services that rely on modern methods to keep you engaged. Books like “Nudge,” “Irresistible,” and “Hooked” present opportunities to introduce subtle direction change into your life that can create habits to improve your health.

A study by Janet Schwartz and Dan Ariely from Duke University on resizing meals is a great example. At McDonald’s, when customers were asked if they would like to super-size their orders, most agreed to supersize. But when Schwartz and her team asked the opposition question at a Chinese restaurant to see if patrons would downsize dish portions, most agreed to downsize—even a third of patrons decided to downsize when the smaller portion of food cost the same!

The fact is most people lean into cognitive ease. In today’s world, technological solutions can help take the proper steps to build healthy habits.

How to Start?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in learning to exercise is figuring out how to start. The root problem is the proper instruction. It’s especially difficult for beginners, who often don’t know what to do or where to find information. If this is you, you are not alone. A recent survey has shown that almost half of Americans who don’t exercise say they don’t have access to proper instruction.

But a lack of instruction isn’t just a problem for beginners—even experienced exercisers can benefit from more guidance. Studies have shown that people guided to exercise correctly are more likely to stick to their routines and see results.

Most of us can relate to the following scenario. You find time in your schedule to try a new exercise. But as you exercise, thoughts creep into your mind, “am I doing this right? are they looking at me? is the best use of my time?” As your mind casts into System 2 thinking, motivation to continue wanes before a new habit has a fighting chance to form.

The lack of instruction and poor outcomes on exercise habits have devastating health effects. Inactive people are at greater risk for developing heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, various types of cancer, and other chronic conditions. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical inactivity is a contributing factor in more than one-third of all deaths from heart disease in the United States.

In addition, inactive people often have a lower quality of life. They are more likely to experience pain and fatigue and may have trouble doing activities they enjoy. Plus, inactive people often have a higher body mass index (BMI) and are more likely to be obese, leading to even more health problems.

When you are correctly instructed on exercising, it becomes much easier to stick with it because you will see positive results. This can help to create a positive association with exercise, making it more likely that you will continue to do it in the future.

The good news is that technology has brought about a whole range of new solutions to the lack of exercise instruction. For example, there are now a significant number of apps that can help you get fit without having to leave your home. These apps can provide you with a variety of exercises to do, as well as detailed instructions on how to do them correctly.

Another great solution is online fitness programs. These programs provide you with a tailored exercise plan designed to help you meet your specific fitness goals. Plus, many of these programs come with video instructions to be sure that you are doing each exercise correctly.

The Bleeding-Edge

A lot has changed in exercise in the past few years. These days, some inventions automate exercise instruction and feedback, making it easier than ever to get in shape and forge lasting habits that can turn your life around.

What excites me most about automation in exercise instruction is the ability these solutions have to properly time feedback. One of the most essential elements of exercise feedback is timeliness. The sooner feedback is given, the more it can help the learner. Delayed feedback can be counterproductive since it can interrupt the learning process and disrupt the formation of new habits.

This is why sports teams use video replay to give feedback to players during a game. The sooner the feedback is given, the more it can help the player improve their performance.

One of the newest solutions in the fitness automation arena a computer vision-based artificial intelligence. For several reasons, a computer vision-based AI fitness trainer could function better than a human personal trainer.

For one, a computer vision-based AI fitness trainer would track a person’s progress in real-time based on the movement of their entire body, adjusting the workout routine as needed to ensure that the person is getting the most out of their workout. Additionally, such a technology would change the intensity of the training accordingly. It could provide personalized feedback on a person’s progress, helping them to stay motivated and on track, and apply personalized insights about what works from the perspective of millions of users.

There are only a handful of fitness companies leveraging computer vision in a meaningful way. The most exciting products are from Tempo and Peloton. Tempo is a first mover with two products on the market. Tempo Studio is a freestanding equipment console with a built-in 42” touchscreen. Tempo Move is a more universal solution since it connects to an existing TV with an iPhone running iOS 14 or later, arriving with a small set of free weights and a well-designed cabinet to hold them. Tempo’s AI provides guidance, forms corrections, adjusts the intensity, counts repetitions, and tracks total weight lifted. Tempo Studio is a more robust solution than Move, costing $2,495, and is reserved for heavier weight training. The move requires less space, is more affordable at $395, and specializes in dumbbell-based exercises. Both require a $39 monthly subscription.

Peloton is following suit and will release its first computer vision AI product in 2022. Peloton Guide is a compact device that looks a lot like Facebook’s Portal TV–a web camera for your TV. Peloton Guide will have similar features as Tempo Studio and should have more robust automation features than Tempo Move since it will have specialized hardware, kind of like a game console but for fitness. Features of Peloton Guide have not been fully disclosed, but from the looks of it, Guide may have an added user-in-screen window option to visualize form like looking at a mirror would. Guide will cost $495 with a $13 monthly subscription and will focus on strength-based exercises.

These products are inspiring. They provide a window into what the future will look like and how we might live our lives. Personal trainers are too expensive for most people, yet they have the expertise to help us forge the proper habits to achieve our health and wellness goals. With the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning, this expertise will soon be available to everyone.

Another promising trend is automation in group fitness classes. As virtual and augmented reality intersect products like Peloton Guide and Tempo Move, group fitness classes can become more immersive and responsive to user needs. Participants will have content tailored to them, as if a personal trainer were there in the room, providing the immediate feedback needed to master healthy exercise habits.

What’s Next

The best way to improve our health is to make regular exercise and a proper diet a part of who we are. But you cannot simply decide to change a habit and then automatically be able to do it—your brain must be retrained to disrupt the sequence of existing habits before replacing it with a new habit. Adopting a healthier lifestyle is a gradual process. 

The best way to ensure success is to integrate our new practices into our daily lives until they become automatic. This will take time and effort, but being armed with the right tools and strategies can help.

Behavioral science demystifies why we make the choices we do. It opens the door to learning about our unconscious decisions, providing opportunities to interrupt when autopilot takes us down the wrong path. It teaches us how to gradually replace bad habits with healthy activities until they become a part of who we are.

Behavioral insights open new possibilities for many of us, but they may only get us partly there. We still need instruction, guidance, and timely feedback—and the majority of us simply can’t afford to pay for a professional coach.

Fitness automation products usher in a promising future that will change the landscape of the health industry. These tools will continue to improve on how they guide us to live better. They can embody the best science, nudge us to take action, reduce the cognitive burden of learning, and provide timely feedback so that the learning process is not interrupted before new habits are formed. As instructional intelligence is just starting to hit the market, more and more will gain access to the tools they need to live their best, promising a bright future that can improve the quality of life for generations to come.

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