Modeling relationships between self-determination, past behaviour, and habit strength (Gardner & Lally, 2013)

Clients hire coaches because they want to make progress on their health and fitness goals. At the same time, they have limited willpower and motivation. Given this constraint, how can coaches help clients?

One way might be to support clients in forming new habits. Habits are behaviors that people begin doing automatically in the presence of cues in the environment. Because habits lead to impulsive behavior, they spare valuable willpower. Thus, the thinking goes, once clients form habits, they will be more likely to perform regular physical activity.

Yet, surprisingly, we do not know much about how people acquire habits, besides repeatedly performing a behavior in the presence of cues in the environment (for example, going to the gym after receiving a calendar reminder).

To fill that gap in our knowledge, in this study, the researchers examined whether the quality of a person’s motivation to engage in physical activity affects the likelihood of it becoming habitual.

Results suggest that when participants engaged in self-determined physical activity (i.e., physical activity that they enjoyed doing for the sake of it and out of their own volition), they were more likely to form a physical activity habit in the future. Moreover, participants that engaged in self-determined physical activity formed stronger habits, independently of past behavior. In summary, self-determined motivation increased the likelihood of physical activity habit formation, and it also increased the strength of those habits.

So what’s the practical takeaway from this study for you as a coach? When helping clients form new habits, you should probably consider adopting an approach that reinforces client autonomy and choice. For example, you could provide clients multiple exercise options, encourage them to set their own goals, and minimize emphasis on extrinsic incentives (for example, offering cash prizes).