CPT Research Study

Research in Review: Do external cues help form exercise habits?

Kyle Stull
Kyle Stull
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See what types of cues can help make exercise a lasting habit.

Journal Article:

Tappe, K., Tarves, E., Oltarzewki, J., & Frum, D. (2013). Habit formation among regular exercisers at fitness centers: An exploratory study. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 10, 607-613.

Purpose of the Study:

The aim of this current study was to investigate factors of habits. Such factors as frequency, environmental, and automaticity and its relation to physical activity behavior and their history of exercise. The authors did not state any hypotheses but formulated three specific research questions. First, how prevalent is habit formation among a group of regular exercisers? Second, will a person scoring high on one aspect of habit formation score high on others? Third, how does the duration of a person’s exercise history relate to current exercise habit formation strength?

Study Participants:

To answer these questions, researchers pulled from a convenience sample of gym goers. 174 participants from a large chain health club and apartment gym were polled when they were either entering or exiting. Potential participants were asked if they would like to participate in an anonymous questionnaire.

Procedure or Methods:

The researchers utilized previously validated surveys and questionnaires as part of their survey to assess the following:

Psychological Habit Measure. A twelve item measure to assess concepts comprising a psychological definition of a habit.

  • Behavioral Habit Measures: Additional questions to gauge habit formation. Researchers included questions intended to gather data on the number of workout days per week, the constancy of workout time each day, and constancy of workout location. Time of year was also included to assess seasonal variations in location and activity.
  • Habit Formation Constancy: These questions asked about the constancy of type of workout behavior each session, the constancy of workout schedule from week to week, and constancy from season to season.
  • Lifetime Exercise Duration: Asked participants how long they have been working out. This was a free-form answer along with a box to check if they were not a regular exerciser. The answers were converted into a total number of years.


The results indicated that the average participant expressed modest agreement with the psychological habit questions. Out of all the participants, 154 (88.5%) answered positively to having either a location or time cue to exercise, and 107 (61.5%) answered that they had both.


Other results indicated higher habit formation among participants cued by location compared to those with no location cues and for those with consistent seasonal routines of exercise. There appeared to be no correlation between psychological habit and time of day cues, activity constancy at each exercise session, or constancy from week to week. Researchers did identify a strong correlation between location cueing and time of day cueing. Additionally, cueing by the time of day related positively with seasonal constancy. There appears to be no correlation between frequency of exercise per week and any other environmental cueing. Lastly, this study found that lifetime exercise duration showed an inverse relationship with time of day and location. No trend was established between lifelong exercise duration and psychological habits. The authors conclude that “the current study discovered high habit formation among many but not all exercises, and revealed a clear relationship between psychological and behavioral aspects of physical activity habit” (p. 612).

Take away for NASM-CPTs:

The current study has provided the first stage of evidence that psychological, behavioral, and environmental measures of habit have relevance to physical activity behaviors. Additional findings allude to the fact that individuals have a unique approach to regular exercise; habit formation is important to many, but not all. An interesting finding was that those with less exercise experience appeared to be more driven by environmental cues. The authors speculate that this may mean that once exercise has become habitual, the exerciser no longer needs the environmental cue. It’s important for CPTs to understand the psychological and behavioral relationship of exercise. While many of us may quickly feel and see the benefits, those that have not been exercisers usually desire something more tangible. Provide your clients with tips and tricks on how to use environmental cues to their advantage.

First, have clients plan their day. This includes having the gym bag packed and an idea of what their exercise will be. Second, plan a route (either to or from work or whatever their day may involve) that has them pass the gym; this will serve as a cue. Finally, make sure they plan a reward for themselves, which does not include food for those with a weight loss goal. A great plan to use is the if-then planning method. For example, the client may tell themselves “if I work out five days this week then I get a new pair of shoes.” While delayed, still a significant and healthy way to reward for a job well done.

The Author

Kyle Stull

Kyle Stull

Kyle Stull, DHSc, MS, LMT, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, NASM Master Instructor, is a faculty instructor for NASM. Kyle is also an Adjunct Professor for Concordia University Chicago.


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