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Disrupting Unhealthy Habits with Environmental Modifications

by Justin Kompf, CSCS, NSCA-CPT
Personal Training Quarterly April 2015
Vol 3, Issue 3


Because habits are contextually linked, it is reasonable to suggest that modifying the environment may disrupt the habit process and allow conscious intention to guide behavior. This article focuses on providing practical recommendations to aid individuals with intentions to exercise and eat healthy to reach their goals in the face of undesirable habits.


Health and wellness professionals and personal trainers are often sought after by individuals who desire to live healthier lifestyles through nutrition and exercise interventions. The desire to change is reflected by good intentions to adopt new behaviors. However, unhealthy habits may easily override an individual’s good intentions. Habitual behavior is distinct from non-habitual behavior in that little information is required to make decisions, intentions are insufficient to predict behavior, and behavior is activated by environmental cues (3,9,12). A habit is the inclination to repeat certain behaviors given a stable context. Habits are measured as the multiplicative function of contextual stability and behavioral frequency. Strong habits are performed frequently in the same context whereas weak habits are performed irregularly and in varying contexts (1). Furthermore, habits are characterized by the automaticity which occurs when a behavior is efficient. A habit can be viewed as a route by which a stimulus automatically creates an urge towards action that is based on learned stimulus-response relations (3).

Cognitive associations for strong habits are contextually linked and are likely goal-independent (3,7). A specific environment may prompt certain behaviors such as physical inactivity or unhealthy eating even in the face of intention to avoid these behaviors. As a habit becomes stronger, the influence of intention on actual behavior will decrease. For example, if an individual intends to eat healthy but has a strong habitual tendency to snack on unhealthy food, the intention they formed may have minimal influence on behavior (13). Since strong habits do not share a relationship with behavioral intention, attempting to change intention alone may not be the most effective strategy to alter behavior. For individuals with good intentions but unhealthy habits, the environment may be the mediator to actual behavior. Because habits are contextually linked, it is reasonable to suggest that modifying the environment may disrupt the habit process and allow conscious intention to guide behavior. This article focuses on providing practical recommendations to aid individuals with intentions to exercise and eat healthy to reach their goals in the face of undesirable habits.

Habit and the Environment

Only a small percentage of people recognize the impact that the environment has on food consumption (17). Furthermore, people often underestimate the number of food-related decisions they make on a daily basis. That is to say, most of these decisions happen automatically or without conscious intention (16). Components of the environment that might trigger the habit response consist of location, preceding actions in a sequence, particular people, or internal feelings or thoughts (8). For example, individuals who scored high for habitually smoking in bars were more likely to find themselves lighting up cigarettes in the bar even after a law was passed that made smoking in bars illegal (8). In this instance, the environment and possibly the sequence of actions played a role in unintended behavior. Another common example is popcorn consumption during movies where eating is automatically triggered by the context. Individuals who have a strong habit for popcorn consumption during movies will eat similar amounts regardless of the taste of the popcorn or how hungry they actually are (6).

However, this consumption pattern may be dependent upon context. For example, individuals with a strong habit to consume popcorn during a movie eat just as much as those with a low habit when the context is changed. People who have a strong habit for eating popcorn eat less by switching to eating with their non-dominant hand. These contextual changes presumably work by removing the automaticity of the task which generates some level of intentional control (7). This disruption in automaticity is also known to occur when individuals move to new locations (14,18). For example, Heatherton and Nichols report that 35% of individuals who made successful life changes reported that they had moved, whereas only 12% of unsuccessful changers moved (4). An environmental disruption such as a move can be taken advantage of by allowing behavior to come under goal-directed intention (14). Of course, it is usually not plausible to suggest that an individual move to a different neighborhood just to change their behavior. However, simple modifications to the home or kitchen environment based on habitual behavior may disrupt these unhealthy habits. This disruption can help intention and goal-guided behavior.

Modifying The Environment

Exercise Habits

It is far easier to engage in sedentary pursuits than physical activity. Furthermore, bad habits such as unhealthy eating provide instantaneous reinforcement while healthy eating and exercise requires a long-term commitment to realize benefits. The purpose of changing the environment is to make undesired habits less likely to happen. Modifying the environment to increase the convenience of physical activity while decreasing the convenience or appeal of sedentary behavior may help to disrupt habits. When physical activity alternatives are convenient compared to inconvenient sedentary activities, people spend increased time being physically active (10). For example, televisions should be placed in locations without comfortable furniture to decrease the appeal of sedentary behavior. Furthermore, televisions should not be in close proximity to food. An individual who watches television close to a kitchen or pantry area will likely eat more while watching television than the person watching in the basement further away from food. Increasing the convenience for exercise should also be a part of behavioral modification interventions. Stationary bicycles or exercise equipment could be placed in bedrooms to serve as a convenient reminder to exercise.

To supplement increased convenience, keeping a consistent schedule and making exercise enjoyable may help to increase habit strength. Kaushal and Rhodes suggest that, along with keeping a consistent workout schedule, strength and conditioning professionals should focus on keeping workouts fun and skill appropriate to increase the likelihood that exercise will become a habit. The rationale is that this will decrease the cognitive demands for exercise and thus help exercise become more habitual (5).

Food Habits

Unhealthy food can be made less convenient as well. For example, Wansink and colleagues observed that candy consumption among secretaries decreased as the ease of access to the candy decreased (15). When candy was located within hands reach and in a clear jar, participants ate more than if the candy was far away and in an opaque jar (15). In this instance, reaching for candy may have been habitual (learned through repetition and unchanging context). By making a small modification to the location of the candy, eating may have come under intentional goal-directed control.

Personal trainers should ask clients to identify the actions that commonly lead up to eating unhealthy food and then suggest ways to disrupt the habit process. For example, an individual may always walk through the kitchen door after work and open the pantry where at eye level lies a bag of chips. Every day they enact this behavior which is stimulated by several environmental cues. The personal trainer could encourage the client to walk through a door that does not lead into the kitchen or place the bag of chips in an inconvenient location. Additionally, instead of eating from a full bag of chips, the client could purchase single-serving packages or pre-serve the snack into a bowl to avoid excessive eating. Any change in action that precedes the behavior may disrupt the habit process. However, it is important to remember that prescribing nutrition plans or diet plans is beyond the scope of personal trainers. A list of suggestions for disrupting unhealthy habits can be found in Table 1.

Table 1. Examples of How to Disrupt Unhealthy Habits



Sedentary behavior

Place exercise clothing on the couch

 Put exercise equipment (e.g., stationary bicycle) where the client engages in sedentary behavior

 Join a gym that is located between work and home

Overconsumption of soda 

Do not put more than one soda in the refrigerator at a time Store soda containers in inconvenient and less noticeable locations Buy single-serving cans rather than one-liter bottles

Overconsumption of alcohol

Store alcohol out of sight, such as in a garage refrigerator

 Reduce time spent with heavy drinkers

 Drink wine in tall skinny glasses to reduce consumption


Create a pantry that is not near the kitchen or television

 Place snacks in single-serving baggies

 Pick one single place to snack that is not in front of the pantry or television

 Make healthy snacks more noticeable than unhealthy snacks

Overeating meals

Leave serving bowls on the stovetop rather than on the dinner table

  Reduce the size of dinner plates and bowls


Replacing Bad Habits with Healthy Habits—The Role of Self-Regulation

Personal trainers should not only help clients disrupt unhealthy behaviors but also replace these behaviors with healthy ones. For example, the goal of decreasing sedentary activity is tantamount to increasing physical activity. New exercisers may benefit from exercising regularly at the same time of the day (environmental time cueing) to form an exercise habit (11). For example, a person may plan to exercise every day after work at a nearby fitness center. This planning of the “when” and the “where” is an example of self-regulation. Self-regulation serves as the basis for purposeful action. Self-regulatory processes mediate the relationship between intention and actual behavior (2,8). This increased behavioral repetition in a consistent context may help to form new health habits.


The environment may be the deciding factor as to whether a habitual urge does or does not occur. The environment may also be a moderating factor as to whether a good intention to exercise or eat healthy will overcome sedentary and poor eating habits. Personal trainers should help clients think of creative ways to modify their environment to help disrupt unhealthy habits. These modifications may help prevent unwanted behaviors and encourage healthy ones.

This article originally appeared in Personal Training Quarterly (PTQ)—a quarterly publication for NSCA Members designed specifically for the personal trainer. Discover easy-to-read, research-based articles that take your training knowledge further with Nutrition, Programming, and Personal Business Development columns in each quarterly, electronic issue. Read more articles from PTQ »



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Justin Kompf, Jr.

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