A man meditating at home in a sunny room as part of his habit loop.

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How Habit Loops Can Help You Follow Through with Your Fitness and Wellness Goals

Want that new routine to stick? Experts explain how habit loops can help you get there.

By Jihan MyersApril 5, 2024


We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Building new habits can be challenging. Our well-worn routines are comfortable and familiar, whereas starting something new, even if we’re motivated to make changes, can be difficult to sustain. The good news: There are ways you can game the process and make it a little easier to stay consistent through a strategy called habit loops. 

“Every habit has the three ingredients of the habit loop, including a cue, routine, and reward,” says Gina Cleo, PhD, a habit expert and adjunct professor at Bond University in Australia. “Cues trigger our habits—just like how sitting in a car triggers us to fasten our seatbelts, or getting ready for bed triggers us to brush our teeth.” The same mental process that has engrained behaviors into our everyday routine can also help us build habits that last.

Read on to learn more about how you can use habit loops to establish—and stick to—new health and fitness goals.

What Is a Habit Loop?

The concept of a habit loop was defined by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit in 2012. In his research, Duhigg found that there were three key parts to habit formation that followed a predictable path. As mentioned above, a habit loop requires a cue, routine, and reward. (We’ll explain each part in detail below.)

Habit loops are effective because they work with our brains to create new patterns and routines. When we want to create a routine, we so often think we have to white-knuckle our way through changes (‘I’ll wake up at 5 AM!’ ‘I’ll work out every night!’ ‘I must drink a gallon of water daily!’). But it’s that sort of all-or-nothing thinking that can lead to our undoing. (And frankly, being so rigid with yourself is rarely the answer.) Habit loops, on the other hand, offer a less intense approach that’s designed to work with our instincts as we go about building better routines.

A woman in warrior pose doing yoga at home as part of her habit loop.

Olga Rolenko / Moment via Getty Images

What Are the 3 Parts of a Habit Loop, and How Do They Work?

The habit loop is built on the belief that in order for something to become a habit, it has to move through three predictable phases, which are:

1. The Cue

The cue in a habit loop is what triggers the habit to start. This can be anything from putting on your sneakers to walking by your bike to laying out your yoga mat. According to Duhigg, cues can be triggered by:

  • Time: “It’s 10 AM on Sunday morning, time to take my Pilates class.”

  • Location: “When I walk by the water fountain, I’ll take a sip.”

  • Emotional state: “I’m bored, so I’ll scroll on Instagram for a while.”

  • The people around you: “When I’m talking with my coworkers, we always get coffee from the seventh floor.”

  • Your last action: “I just got under the covers, so now I’ll plug my phone in.” (This is called habit stacking, and it’s incredibly effective!)

In short, the cue sets your habit in motion.

2. The Routine

The routine is the behavior being performed itself. Once your brain is triggered by the cue, it moves on to complete the associated action, whether that’s eating something you just grabbed from the kitchen, getting on your Peloton Bike to do a weekly ride with your friend, or simply brushing your teeth at the end of the day after you wash your face. 

3. The Reward

This part is the biggie. Our brains are wired to build habits that make us feel good. Whether it’s the dopamine rush after a great workout or the calmness you feel after your daily meditation, habits—good or not-so-good—hinge on how they make us feel. 

So if you’re looking to build a new habit, it helps to reward yourself in some way so that your brain is excited and, as a result, more likely to want to engage in the behavior again. The reward doesn’t need to be anything big, and it’ll be different for everyone—but it could look like stopping to get your favorite smoothie after a run, saving an exciting TV show to watch only while you exercise, or getting up to enjoy a soothing cup of tea after your meditation ends.

Habit Loop Examples

While the concept of habit loops may seem complex, you’re likely operating within a lot of habit loops without even realizing it. For instance, maybe when you walk out your front door and pull it shut, you turn to lock it. You don’t have to think about it—the simple act of pulling the door shut (an action-based cue) triggers you to lock it, and you’re rewarded by coming home to a place that feels safe and secure. 

The same may be true when you walk into the kitchen each morning and turn on your coffee maker. Walking into the kitchen (a location-based cue) triggers you to do an action you’ve done thousands of times before: flip the coffee maker on. The reward is a satisfying cup of coffee that kicks off your day. 

And while a lot of our habit loops have to do with basic tasks, they can also be applied to building bigger fitness and wellness habits. “A specific time of day can trigger a consistent exercise routine, like, ‘At 7 AM, I will do a 30-minute workout,’” Cleo says. “At first, we may need a reminder or an alarm, but with consistency and repetition, 7 AM will automatically trigger the habit chain. In time, 7 AM will equal working out.”

Other potential habit loops might include: 

  • Putting on a specific pair of sneakers can be your cue to walk out the door and go for a run, which makes you feel happy and strong afterward.

  • Hopping on your Peloton Bike as soon as you turn on your favorite show (the cue), which can make exercise something you tie to a rewarding hit of entertainment.

  • Keeping your headphones near the tea kettle can cue you to put on your favorite meditation class while your water boils.

Tips for Forming (and Breaking) Habit Loops

Forming or breaking habit loops starts with understanding what drives you. Before you can create a successful habit loop, it helps to examine how and why you do things. Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

1. Figure Out Your Cues

When forming a new habit loop, start by thinking about your specific cues. What’s most likely to spring you into action? 

For instance, if you work from home and walk by your Peloton Tread all the time, a location-based cue to exercise probably won’t work for you, since you won’t go for a jog every time you walk by the Tread. That’s why you have to make the path from cue to action exceedingly clear. 

Cleo says it can be helpful to plan where and when you’ll perform your chosen action to create a cue that truly triggers you to act. This can be as simple as, “When I get home from work, I’ll go for a walk with my dog.”

2. Build the Right Belief System

“One important component about maintaining an exercise routine is making time and embracing an ‘exerciser identity,’” says Chelsea Wooding, PhD, a certified mental performance consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “Habit loops can help us set a specific trigger or cue (i.e. workout clothes in the car, driving by the gym, setting up my workout equipment in the morning so it’s ready at the end of the day) which can then remind us it’s time to exercise.” 

But here’s where Wooding acknowledges a big caveat: If you don’t see yourself as an exerciser, it may be easier to blow past any cues you try to establish. A key step is actually believing you’re the type of person who exercises, or meditates, or eats healthy meals, or whichever identity is rooted into your habit loop. “As people develop exercise routines for themselves, purposefully noticing our definition of ‘exercise’ and ‘exerciser’ can help us adjust those definitions as necessary to feel more connected to and motivated to exercise,” Wooding says.  

3. Give Yourself Grace

Don’t expect your habit loops to stick on the first (or even the 15th) try. The length of time it takes to form a habit is highly variable. You will mess up (and ignore your well-placed cues) from time to time—and that’s to be expected. 

“The phrase ‘progress, not perfection’ has caught on like wildfire for a reason,” Wooding says. “But even within that, we think we must progress perfectly or constantly be taking steps forward for it to count, which inadvertently defeats the purpose of the phrase.”

When you take a step back in your progress, be gentle on yourself and focus on why you’re starting this new habit (or quitting an old one) in the first place. “When you are trying to start a new behavior, there are going to be a lot of moments that tempt you back into an old behavior,” Wooding says. “If you have a strong anchor to your purpose or why (i.e. playing longer with my kids, better quality of life, etc.), it can help you keep your eyes forward rather than being distracted by the temptation.”

4. Understand the Rewards That Drive You

Knowing what rewards propel you is key for making or stopping habits. To do this, try breaking down what habit loop you’re currently operating in. For Duhigg, as he says in his book, it was about understanding what triggered him to want a cookie every afternoon at work. Understanding what the reward actually was (it wasn’t the cookie but the time spent socializing while eating the cookie) allowed him to create a new habit that led to the same reward. 

“We often have competing motives,” Wooding adds. You might want to take a yoga class after leaving work, but you might also want to meet friends for last-minute happy hour plans. In that moment, it’s not that you’re unmotivated to exercise, you’re simply more motivated to socialize with friends. 

Wooding has a tool that can help called the “choice point.” We make countless tiny choices all day long: “Will I work out tonight or will I not?” “Will I meditate or will I put it off until tomorrow?” In the moment of choice, Wooding says, we have two options: move toward values-aligned action or away. Of course, we’re often tempted to move away. This is why having an enticing enough reward at the end of your loop can help you stay the course.

The Takeaway

A habit loop, which consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward, can be a powerful tool to help you make positive changes in your life and build the types of routines that you crave. In the end, though, it still hinges on being consistent. With the right cues and rewards, you can create the actions you want and repeat them. “The secret sauce to changing our habits is consistency, not intensity,” Cleo says. “So, start small, and focus on creating rituals and build on those rituals with time.”

The Peloton App can help you form new wellness and fitness habits with the ability to stack and schedule classes, track your goals, and participate in challenges.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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