Can Mindless Behaviors Help You Stay Fit?


When stress and lack of sleep bring on zombie-like behaviors, like mindlessly devouring junk food in front of the TV or skipping yet another early-morning workout, we’re quick to credit an exhaustion-induced loss of self-control for our slip-ups. But new research suggests that lack of control doesn’t always set us up to take a dive off the deep end. Turns out, our habits—even healthy ones—trump willpower when we’re feeling fatigued.

In the study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that college students who ate unhealthy breakfast foods, like doughnuts or pastries, throughout the semester continued to eat poorly during exams, when they were stressed and sleep-deprived. However, students who regularly ate oatmeal for breakfast were more likely to stick to the healthy-eating habit when they were under pressure.

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Similarly, students who regularly read a newspaper every day during the semester were more likely to do so during exams, even when they were pressed for time. Regular exercisers were also more likely to go to the gym when they were stressed.

The researchers noted that the students’ good habits didn’t necessarily beat out the bad ones—they stuck to whichever habits they already had. The habits, though, picked up the decision-making slack when students didn’t have the energy to change up their daily routines.

If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit, you know how powerful they can be. But good habits, like running every morning or loading up on vegetables at the grocery store, can have an equally strong hold over you, so lay down some ground rules STAT. Here’s how to get started:

  • Build good habits early so you’ll have something to fall back on when the going gets rough. Don’t wait ‘til you’re drowning in stress to try something new—you’ve got enough to worry about already.
  • Choose simple behaviors that you can repeat often until they become part of your routine.
  • Let go of being in control all the time. Build healthy habits and your goals will come.