How Running Taught Me Habit-Forming
Updated: Jul 9
Today's post is by Chapter of the Day's newest contributor, Michael Merten. Merten has previously been a guest contributor; and we are very happy to have him now join us as a member of our regular team.
Back in high school I ran cross country. It was a good time: I made great friends, traveled to meets, dreaded racing, and stayed in shape. I formed a habit of running every day after school, and that habit helped me to continue running even after I graduated.
Enter college, where I most definitely did not run. I gained weight and fell out of shape. Every attempt I made to get back in the habit of running failed. I also made great friends here and traveled quite a bit, but the constant obligations kept me from maintaining a consistent schedule if I had time at all.
The key here is that I got out of the habit of running, I took a break over the summer between high school and college, but once I got to college, I did not pick up running again. I broke the habit.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that all behaviors that define us are a result of habit. Habit is something that takes a while to build up, but once built up it can easily sustain itself. This is how Aristotle defines the vices and virtues: a disposition to act in a certain manner. This seems vague, but makes a lot of sense.
How do we build up a disposition? We consistently act in a certain way which causes us to, when given the choice, tend to act that way. We don’t call people dishonest simply because they lie once; we call them dishonest because they lie repeatedly. In the same vein, we do not call people athletic because they exercised that one time; we call them athletic because they exercise on a regular basis.
The reason I continue to return to the exercise example is that while Aristotle was referring to vices and virtues, his understanding of habit (and how habits lead to dispositions) can apply to most aspects of life. If we have a habit of choosing to do healthy things, we will continue to choose to do healthy things, and vice versa.
Now, Aristotle’s Ethics does not simply deal with abstract philosophical ideas. For Aristotle, our vices and virtues truly effect how we behave mentally and physically. The virtue of courage is not simply a state of mind, it requires action. In order to really own a virtue, you must continually display that virtue via virtuous habits.
Adds up, right? Once a good habit is ingrained in you it will start to effect other things in your life. If you exercise, you will likely begin to eat healthier because it makes exercising easier and helps to provide results. If you make your bed, you may then begin to clean your room, to organize your day better, and other such changes.
The same can be said of bad habits. Making one's bed is quite a simply task, but it can really grate on you if you're not used to it. It's hard to resist grabbing that soda at the gas station if you're in the habit of drinking sugary beverages.
None of this is to that habits cannot be broken. It just takes an effort of will and the establishment of a counter-habit, so to speak. This counter-habit will be slow starter, and it will be difficult to maintain for a while, but it can come to replace the original habit. This does mean there needs to be a conscious and focused effort to change. This is how diets and workout plans work: they slowly replace the original habit with a better one through force of will until the new thing becomes a habit.
Now, we live in a very polarized culture when it comes to health. There have never been more gyms and fitness gurus, nor have there ever been more toxic food choices and advertisements. So the point of this isn't that you need to run, per se. Running might not be the habit for you. But whatever that habit is that you'd really like to have under your belt, why not work at developing it? People often overestimate what they can do in a day, the saying goes, but underestimate what they can do in a year.
What could you do?