Why Prepping for a Workout Makes You More Likely to Do It

It’s called an instigation cue, and it’s key to building a habit that sticks.

New Africa / Shutterstock
New Africa / Shutterstock

When it comes to building a new healthy habit, sometimes all it takes is a simple cue to help us commit every small step of the way. Starting the day with a good workout can set a positive tone for your entire day, but there are inevitably some days when all we want to do is stay burrowed in bed. You may not be able to resist the call of the snooze button every morning, but what you can do is enlist the help of your immediate surroundings to make getting up and moving all the more enticing

We know from a body of research that situational cues, like placing a significant object somewhere you’ll see or encounter when you go through the motions of your morning routine, are one of the simplest yet powerful behavioral motivators at our disposal. All you have to do is choose something that signifies the behavior you want to follow through with — your workout clothes, your yoga mat, or sneakers — and set it where you’ll see it upon waking up. This small bit of preparation the night before takes almost no energy to do in the moment, but serves as a gentle reminder of your intentions to prioritize your health and well-being. 

The goal is to make waking up and getting out the door to the gym an instigation habit, as psychologists call it, a behavior you follow automatically or by routine — which is especially ideal for morning exercisers who tend not to be at their most alert first thing in the morning. One study from Iowa State, published in Health Psychology, found that this kind of habit is the greatest predictor of whether we’ll actually end up working out on a regular basis. 

What’s more, our clothes carry significant meaning in terms of how we feel when we see and wear them. Psychologists call this “enclothed cognition,” and some experts say this can even affect our performance to a surprising extent. According to Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., longtime sports psychologist of the New York Giants and New York Mets, “When you put on new fitness gear, you begin to get into character like an actor putting on a costume for a performance. As a result, you expect to have a better performance, making you more mentally prepared for the task.” 

So think of preparing for your workout as preparing for your performance. You may find setting your cues by laying out your clothes and gear where you’ll see them in the moment is just the kind of built-in motivational boost you need to get moving.

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