Are 21-Day Challenges Habit Forming?

21-day challenge

They’re everywhere — the 21-day challenge. I’m sure you’ve seen them, and you’ve probably started to ignore them. It is said that repeatedly doing something for 21 days straight can form a habit. A habit, such as brushing your teeth before bed, putting on your seat belt and taking the same route to work.

I recently challenged myself to use my elliptical for 21 days straight. This coming from someone who averted her eyes each time she passed it. I wanted to know if I climbed aboard every day for 21 days if we would magically have a beautiful bond — a newfound friendship that we would share for years to come.

Katie 21 Day part 2

Well, I’m happy to say that I stuck with it, although it wasn’t easy. The mental block was real. But as each day passed I felt a little stronger and more confident. I began with whatever I could do and slowly increased my time or resistance. Some days I only had 20 or 25 minutes, but instead of saying “I don’t have time, maybe tomorrow,” I took that time, however brief, and did my workout.

I flexed in the mirror after each workout, like a teenager. I felt so much stronger! I looked the same.

The second week was the hardest. The first week I still had the motivation. On Day 10 I almost forgot. I was gone all day and had church that evening. I remembered late that night and began at 11 p.m. Day 13 was busy and I began after midnight. On Day 14 I finally started noticing a mental difference. I felt stronger and I wanted to get on the elliptical rather than trying to push it away.

Katie 21

How to Make the Most of Your 21-Day Challenge

I’ve read these tips before, but things often stick when you experience them yourself.

1. Make it fun. First, I recommend finding a way to entertain yourself so you aren’t exercising in silence, watching the clock. I was watching Netflix on my iPhone 4s — I’m high-tech. My husband casually asked why I wasn’t using our iPad. (Like I said, “high-tech.”) I switched to the iPad. If you’re like me, distracting your brain is the best way to keep moving forward … in place … on a stationary machine.

2. Switch up your workout. If you’re only using the elliptical, like I did, you probably aren’t working every muscle in your body. You’ve heard it before: Throw in some strength-training days. Switch up the activities — go for a walk outdoors instead of using the treadmill in the basement. You want to feel engaged, not bored.

3. Rest is important. I figured out what this means around day 7. Your body needs a break. I began my challenge on a Monday and by Sunday I craved a day off. I wanted one day where I didn’t feel like I had to exercise. It’s definitely more enjoyable and motivating when you get rest days — the same reason we don’t work seven days a week (I hope). Everybody needs a break!

4. Don’t exercise before bed. Try not to anyway. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Exercising gives you energy and that’s the last thing you want when you’re trying to wind down to sleep.

5. Don’t let small issues become barriers — find solutions. One of my dogs, Harvey, has separation anxiety and must be in the same room with either my husband or me. I usually exercised when I was home alone and Harvey couldn’t figure out how to be right beside me, and I didn’t buy the “doggie sidecar” model. He nearly got knocked in the face a couple times. He began tearing things up so I would have to come down and talk to him. Finally, I moved his bed into the room. That was the ticket. We did this each day and he napped peacefully there until I was done.

I don’t believe I created a habit after 21 days of using my elliptical — trust me, I wish I had. I’m not sure how long it takes to truly form or break a habit. But, I can definitely say I’m stronger and no longer have a block between the machine and myself. We have an understanding now. I can come and go as I please. The machine no longer controls me. I’m a strong, motivated woman. Hear me roar!

Have you ever completed a 21-day challenge? — Katie

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4 Comments
  1. Good for you for sticking to 21 days of getting on the elliptical straight! It does sounds so incredibly hard. I have not tried the 21-day fix to create a habit, but I think the biggest thing is that you have to really want to do the thing you set your mind to. Let’s say you really enjoy running, but can’t seem to find time. I can see how making yourself find the time for 21 days would make you continue finding the time even after the 21 days is up. However, if you absolutely hate doing yoga…you might be able to make yourself do it for 21 days and see some real benefits, but unless you change your thinking on yoga and come to enjoy it…you will fall off the wagon and stop after the challenge is up. (My personal opinion on that.)

  2. Ana says:

    I agree with Deanna. I also think timing is an important piece in creating daily routines. If you do it at the same time everyday, or there about, there is less chance of forgetting or not being able to fit it in. Plus you start to mentally and physically expect it making it more of a habit.

  3. I love everything you guys are saying about changing your mindset! I fully believe that fitness is a mindset, that you do need to push yourself to make it a “habit” and not only to just get up and do your workout or make your meal plan but to actually work on your mentality too! Whether that is through personal development, meditation, or just practicing positive and productive thoughts each day.

  4. Andy says:

    I read somewhere that doing something over and over again for several days will eventually form into a habit, but that it actually takes more than 21 days for that habit to actually coalesce and stick. If you really want to make a habit out of exercising, I suggest you for longer challenges. Maybe a 60-day challenge or even a 100-day challenge. That should be more effective than shorter 21 days. Sure, it’ll be harder, but by the time you’re done, the habit would’ve already stuck. 🙂