NOV 28, 2017 7:06 AM PST

Want to Start a Habit? Do it First Thing in the Morning

Committing to healthy habits isn't as easy as it might sound. Everyone knows that eating a balanced diet, exercising, getting enough sleep and getting regular medical check-ups are important when it comes to maintaining good health, but not everyone sticks to these guidelines.

Life gets busy, and it's not always possible to find time to hit the gym. Grabbing a burger on the go is quicker than shopping for food and making a big salad and the reasons not to stick to a healthy diet or exercise plan outweigh the reasons we should hang in there with it.

A study from researchers at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France was published recently, and the results show that more people are successful at sticking with a healthy habit when they do it first thing in the morning. It was a small study, with only 48 participants, but it included monitoring of cortisol levels as well, which fluctuate during the day and which can impact memory and the ability to form habits.

The group of subjects was divided in half for the study. Everyone was instructed on how to do a simple hip flexor stretch. All the participants would be doing the same stretch for the same period each day; however, one half was told to perform the stretch when they first woke up in the morning, and the other half was told to do it before bed. The participants all had standard work and sleep cycles of being awake during the day and sleeping at night, for mostly the same amount of hours. They also all were waking up an going to bed at similar times.

Via an app on their smartphones, the participants were reminded to stretch and then answered questions daily about how long it took them to remember to do it. Also, saliva samples that measured cortisol levels. In general, cortisol levels are highest in the morning and lowest at night. Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands. The hypothalamus secretes a trigger hormone that signals the pituitary gland, which then produces another hormone, ACTH that acts on the adrenal glands which produce cortisol. Stress can disrupt this process as well as other factors like weight, diabetes and mental illness. For that reason, all of the study subjects were healthy, with normal weight and not on hormonal birth control, which can also alter cortisol levels.

The group that stretched in the morning formed the habit without needing a reminder nearly two months before the group that did the exercise at night. The researchers attributed the quicker ability of the morning group to form the habit to higher levels of cortisol, since it's known that this hormone is involved in memory formation and habits. The study did have some limits including the small number of participants and the fact that they were all college-aged and healthy. Older people, those with medical conditions and those that are on medications that impact cortisol levels might not do so well with habit formation in the morning because of these other factors. However, whether you are a morning person or a night owl, adopting better habits and sticking with them, be it stretching, an exercise class or a healthier diet is always worth the effort. Check out the video below.

Sources: American Psychological Association, Baseline of Health Foundation

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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