Timing is Everything When Starting a Healthy Habit
You probably know by now that the best way to introduce a new, healthier lifestyle is by making small changes incrementally. So if, for example, you want to add sit ups to your daily routine, you’re not going to try to do 50 on your first attempt, but maybe shoot for five and improve from there. Or if you’d like to start eating more fruit, rather than stocking up on pounds of produce that will likely become rotten before you consume all of it, maybe choose to add fruit to one meal a day to ensure you increase your intake. But aside from making your changes one step at a time, you also might want to consider when you’re putting them into effect. According to new research, there’s a certain time of day that might be more favorable than any other.
The study, which was conducted at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France, found that committing to a new habit was most successful when it was done first thing in the morning.1 This result is based on a 90-day experiment involving 48 college students. All of the subjects were taught a specific exercise for stretching the hip flexor muscle in order to increase flexibility and help prevent back pain. Then they were randomly divided into two groups.
The first group was told to perform this 15-second stretch every morning shortly after awakening, while the second group was recommended to do the stretch at night shortly before going to sleep. An app on their phones would question them daily about whether they had done their stretch at the right time and how long they thought about performing the stretch before they actually made the effort to do it. In addition, saliva samples were taken once a month from each participant to measure their cortisol levels.
Notably, neither of the groups instantly took to remembering to do their stretches at the assigned time, but they improved as the study period continued. In the meantime, the researchers analyzed the data from the app to determine an estimate of how long each volunteer would probably take for the stretch to become an automatic habit without need for a reminder. They found that those in the morning stretching group were on track to remember their stretch spontaneously by the 105th day performing it. In contrast, the nighttime stretchers were not expected to remember to perform their routine until the 154th day, nearly two months later.
While personal circadian rhythms—the internal clocks we each have that make us either a morning person or a night owl—may also play a part in our preferences and ability to learn early and late in the day, the findings of the current study provide strong evidence that cortisol is a major factor as well. Cortisol is a hormone your body releases in response to stress and one if its many functions relates to the formation of memories.
In most people, cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning. And a 2008 study at the University of Chicago in Illinois showed that the presence of at least moderate levels of cortisol is associated with greater adaptability and learning capability.2 This held up in the current research when the investigators discovered that the difference between the morning and nighttime stretchers evaporated after they controlled for individual variations in cortisol.
The study was limited by the very small size of its population sample and narrow age range. However, the results are intriguing and in line with earlier research, suggesting that this may very well be worth exploring further. Not to mention the fact that studies have found that those who exercise in the morning tend to sleep better and longer than people who exercise at other times of day.
Therefore, if you’re interesting in picking up a new healthy habit, you might have the best chance of getting it to stick by introducing it as part of your morning routine. Whether that’s leaving yourself a note or setting an extra alarm on your smartphone as a reminder, you will hopefully only need these cues for a 105 days or so before the behavior simply becomes part of your day.
- 1. Fournier, Marion; et al. "Effects of circadian cortisol on the development of a health habit." Health Psychology. November 2017. Accessed 28 October 2017. http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fhea0000510.
- 2. Mateo, Jill M. "Inverted-U shape relationship between cortisol and learning in ground squirrels." Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. 4 March 2008. Accessed 29 October 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2435239/.