A rational person would assume that the country with the most gyms in the world would also be one of the fittest. The irony is that the US leads with over 40,000 gyms but only 23% of Americans get enough exercise. The fittest country in the world is actually one of the poorest and is not even in the rankings. 1
Most people in Uganda don’t go to gyms because they already get plenty of exercise during their workday. Their daily life demands they stay active and it is not a matter of choice to be fit but a necessity.
Ugandans like Jennifer Namulembwa and Abiasali Nsereko can’t afford to own a car and have to walk everywhere. They are both fit because they need to maintain an active lifestyle and their work is physically demanding. 2
Jennifer works as a cleaner in Kampala and spends over 3 hours per day walking to work. She does it five days a week but would rather ride in a car or motorcycle if she could afford one. Abiasali is also very active and spends up to eight hours a day on his feet. He is a 68 year-old Ugandan farmer who wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to milk his cows and grow all the food he eats. 3
When it comes to building new habits there is a difference between “I need to do something” in order to survive and “I want to do it” because I have a desire.
The words “need” and “want” are not the same.
The Difference Between Need and Want
In a recent survey, 48 percent of Americans don’t exercise because they are simply too busy. They “want” to exercise and believe it will help them feel happier but they are too tired, don’t have the time, or have too much work. 4
Yet the average American also spends three hours per day watching television and over two hours a day on social media. It is much easier to make excuses when you want to do something but don’t have a real need to do it. 5
The interesting thing is whether exercise is a need or a want is all a matter of perception. While most people consider regular exercise as something they want to do, people who exercise regularly consider it as a need.
This is important because what you become and do in life starts with your mind first and your actions second. Everything we do starts with a thought.
Healthy Habits are Needs and not Wants
Most people want to exercise regularly and eat healthier but are unable to build healthy habits because they rely too much on motivation and willpower. They treat exercise and eating healthy as “wants” instead of thinking of these habits as necessities.
But things have changed over the last century. People once had active lifestyles and ate plenty of vegetables.
Most people today are sedentary and eat mostly ultra-processed foods. In fact half our total calories come from foods that are low in nutrients and high in sugar, oil, and salt. 6
Most Americans did not have to deal with obesity one hundred years ago. Today over 40% of Americans are obese and this number keeps rising. Our poor nutrition and inactivity is literally killing us yet we continue to treat healthy habits as things we want and not need.
The way you think about a habit is important because to build new habits that stick you need to first develop the right mindset about those habits.
When you treat a healthy habit as a necessity it becomes easier to commit to repeating it even if life gets busy or it requires substantial effort.
This brings us to an important question: Once we determine that a healthy habit is a need how do we make it stick?
Some Habits Can Take 9 Months to Form
There are many healthy habits that you can build through repetition and a little bit of conscious effort including flossing your teeth, taking a 10-minute walk, using sunscreen, eating a piece of fruit, and getting up to stretch every hour.
For example, if you want to start flossing your teeth twice a day then take the dental floss with you. Keep it in your pocket if necessary until flossing twice a day becomes a habit.
If you want to eat more fruit buy a large bowl and place it on your kitchen island or breakfast table. Make sure to always keep the bowl in sight and full of your favorite fruits.
The trick to building habits is too make a task as easy as possible to repeat it. The more complicated a task becomes the harder it is to follow-through.
According to research by Phillippa Lally and her team published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes at least 2 months for a simple behavior to become automatic. The good news is missing a day does not affect the chance of forming a habit. But complicated habits can take much longer to form and almost 9 months to fully develop. 7
Tasks that satisfy a need and are easy to do only take a few months to become a habit (1). And more difficult tasks take much longer to master (2). As long as there is a need, you will continue to perform a task until it becomes a habit. If there is no need or craving you won’t have enough reason to repeat a task.
However, some tasks by their very nature require too much conscious effort and sacrifice. Tasks that are not easy to do can never fully become automatic.
Why Non-Negotiable Rules are Necessary
When a task requires too much effort you will need to create a non-negotiable rule. Otherwise, you will eventually stop doing the task if you rely only on your willpower or motivation.
The greater the conscious effort or sacrifice required to complete a task, the more likely you will need a predetermined rule to continue doing it. A non-negotiable rule is simply a commitment that you make with yourself to repeat a habit even if it is difficult and time-consuming.
For example, I have been exercising regularly since I was 19 years old and consider this healthy habit a necessity. The benefits of physical activity are numerous and working out gives me energy, strength, and confidence.
However, I don’t always have time to exercise and sometimes lack the motivation or willpower. Since exercise is a priority I have several rules I use to keep me on track and help me to stick with my habit.
First, I set a rule to go running for an hour at least once a week. Second, I have a rule to do strength training at least 2 times per week but try my best to do more. And third, I take as many walks as possible during the week to keep me active since I am sedentary for most of my work week.
I also follow the 50 Percent Rule to stay at a healthy weight and get the nutrients my body needs. With this rule I don’t have to count calories and simply fill up half of my plate each day with fruits and vegetables.
“By using rules you build non-negotiable habits.”
By using rules you build non-negotiable habits. You repeat these tasks not because they are easy or automatic but because they are a necessity. This is how healthy habits stick.
How Rules and Goals are Different
Keep in mind that rules are different from goals. A goal is something that you try to do or achieve. Every goal has an end to it whether you succeed or not. 8
Rules don’t have an end and are guidelines you follow for the rest of your life.
We live in an unbalanced world and non-negotiable rules are designed to help us restore and maintain balance in our lives. That is why it is important to first develop the right mindset before attempting to master any habit.
To master your habits you need to always grow your mind.
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- The country with the most gyms is the United States with 41,370 locations. Nicholas Rizzo (October 2021), 200+ Gym Industry Statistics 2021.
- Jennifer Namulembwa spends an hour-and-a-half walking to work. (September 2018), Why Uganda is the ‘world’s fittest country’.
- He wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to milk his cows. Hilary Brueck (April 2019), Finland and Uganda are the world’s fittest countries.
- 48% also said they’re too busy from work and other obligations to exercise. Ben Renner (November 2019), Life Gets In The Way: Nearly Half Of Americans Want To Exercise, But Don’t Have Time.
- Estimates suggest that in 2022 U.S. adults will spend an average of around three hours watching TV each day. Julia Stoll (February 2022), Average daily time spent watching TV in the United States from 2019 to 2023(in minutes).
- Ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories. ScienceDaily (October 2021), Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods.
- The time it took participants to reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity ranged from 18 to 254 days. (July 2009), How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world.
- A goal is the result or achievement toward which effort is directed. Dictionary.com.