Author Charles Duhigg literally wrote the book on habits. One especially powerful concept he identified is what he calls keystone habits. Keystone habits give you leverage to create other positive habits. By developing a strong keystone habit, you get many extra benefits without having to exert much effort. One of the best keystone habits is exercise. If you develop and iron-clad exercise habit, many other healthy habits, including healthy eating and better sleep, will fall into place almost automatically. Here’s how it works.
Typically, when you first start working out, it’s not too bad. You may be a little tired or a little sore, but you’re also excited to be doing something new and you can imagine the happier, healthier, sexier new you and you can’t wait to get there. However, after a few weeks or a few months, you start to discover that transformation isn’t easy. You start to ask yourself if you really want to keep putting in the time at the gym. This is where habits will save you. If you created good habits, such as exercising at the same time every day as part of a regular sequence, when those doubts creep in, it won’t matter because you’re more or less on autopilot. You just go to the gym because it’s time to go to the gym. Congratulations, you’ve sewn a habit that will keep paying off for years to come.
When you’re in the habit of exercising regularly, whether you feel like it or not, you start to notice patterns. If you don’t get enough sleep the night before, you’ll see your performance suffer. If you eat half a bucket of fried chicken and try to go for a run, you’ll feel absolutely awful. It might take a little while to learn these lessons, but you will inevitably learn them. You’ll think about that fried chicken, but then remember you have HIIT training that afternoon and you won’t want to go near that chicken or any fried food. The effect is subtle, but it’s always there in the back of your mind. You only have to struggle through so many workouts on five hours of sleep before you go to bed a little earlier to make sure you get enough sleep.
It works the other way too. Working out has many positive downstream effects. You’ll probably notice right away that you’re sleeping better. It’s partly because you’re worn out and need to recover, but it’s also because you’re more relaxed and your mood is better. Lower anxiety means better sleep. Better sleep leads to better workouts. It’s a positive cycle. Working out also strengthens your brain’s prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for emotional regulation, planning, and self-control. That means you’ll have a little extra willpower to protect you from making bad decisions about what to eat or anything else.
Perhaps most importantly, when you start taking care of yourself and seeing results, the last thing you want to do is mess it up. Instead, you’ll want to do even more. You’ll want to get everything you can from the effort you put in, so you’ll constantly find yourself thinking about how to eat a little better or sleep a little better or train more effectively. Once you start, you won’t want to stop.
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