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Humans are hardwired for pleasure. It’s the reason people develop addictions to things such as alcohol, nicotine, food and gambling that reward them with dopamine and make them feel good. Everyone has their own form of indulgence, yet over time you can easily get caught in a routine that can be hard to break, which makes adopting healthier habits that much harder. Starting to establish an exercise routine can be challenging, yet if you understand the science behind why habits stick, you’ll be on the fast track to committing to your habit. 

One of the best hacks for adopting the habit of exercising is replacing the ‘feel-good’ dopamine craving you receive from alcohol or food with the ‘feel-good’ endorphin rush and dopamine you receive from exercise. If that means nothing to you, start with rewarding yourself with your version of a treat post-exercise – the science behind habit change supports it. 

According to author of The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that “habits never really disappear”, they will always be hardwired into our brain.1 This is the reason that it can be challenging to adopt exercise habits or change eating patterns. When you get home from work, pouring yourself a glass of wine, grabbing your favourite snack, sitting on the couch and turning on Netflix becomes a routine, and the more you do it, that pattern becomes ingrained in your brain. 

The reason this becomes a daily routine is because of the habituated pattern of the cues signaling the routine and the anticipated rewards. 

You crave ice cream because you’ve become habituated to the reward eating ice cream brings, you neurologically crave the delicious taste of the ice cream when you see it, smell it – or in some cases, hear it. This craving happens subconsciously. You associate the cue (the sight of the ice cream cone, the smell of the waffle cone, or the sound of the ice cream truck) connected to the reward (the feeling you get from eating ice cream). 

The reason wine and Netflix become a routine after work is because of the pattern of cues and the rewards encoded into your brain. Once you hear the cue (your roommate turns on Netflix and you hear the triggering ‘Netflix chime’), you subconsciously will crave the reward (sitting comfortably on the couch and mindlessly enjoying a show). The reward becomes that much more enticing if you add a glass of wine or beer into the mix because the feeling of dopamine from alcohol increases that reward.  

How do you get out of that routine, and adopt a new habit like an exercise routine? You must create a cue, insert a new routine and crave a reward.

Over time, with consistency, this routine will become automatic, it begins with:

  1. Specific and easy cue 
  2. Clear and intriguing reward 

Studies have shown that individuals who consistently exercise have a higher likelihood of committing to an exercise regimen when they condition their brain to associate a simple cue with a clear reward. 

Specific and easy cues

  • Leave your exercise clothes out the night before
  • Leave your running shoes next to your bed 
  • Leave your phone across the room so that when the alarm goes off you have to get out of bed to turn it off (if you wake up early to exercise)

Clear and intriguing rewards

  • The feeling of an endorphin rush 
  • The feeling of a treat
    • your favourite protein bar, a smoothie 
  • The feeling of accomplishment and praise
    • Posting your workout on social media and getting support from friends

While the cue and reward are key to establishing your new routine, studies have shown that they are not sufficient in the long-term success of a habit. Duhigg explains that it is “only when your brain starts expecting the reward – craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic.” 

It is this expectation of a reward that you use to get yourself through a tough day at work. You think about the enjoyment of wine and Netflix and convince yourself you can get through it because you get to enjoy the reward after the day is done.

With an unfamiliar routine, especially one that is uncomfortable such as exercise, you have to condition your brain to expect, anticipate, and crave the reward. Focus on how good the reward will feel, whether it’s the endorphin rush, the treat, or the praise you’ll receive from social media.  

A study at New Mexico University described how people who consistently exercised were able to adopt new exercise habits. These 266 people who worked out a minimum of three times per week described that they became committed to exercise and stuck with it because of the reward they craved

From this study, out of one group of participants, 92% exercised because they craved feeling good as a result of the post-exercise endorphins and dopamine. Out of another group, 67% exercised because of the sense of pride, they craved a feeling of accomplishment.

Habits are difficult to change, as I’m sure you can relate with, but don’t worry, it’s not just you, there’s a reason for this. A habit never disappears, Duhigg explains that “a habit cannot be eradicated – it must, instead, be replaced.”

Once you’ve established and replaced your routine with exercising instead of watching Netflix on the couch, it will require commitment. The key to commitment long term is first believing change is attainable and joining a group that is supportive in your belief and aligned with your interests. According to Duhigg, “your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group.” Join a fitness class at the gym, or a running group, or even a running buddy, because a team of two is stronger than a team of one.

If you want to learn more about the science of habit change, check out this easy and informative read: The Power of Habit.


1 Duhigg, Charles. The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. New York : Random House, 2012. Print.