Healthy behaviors should become habitual. But how? It is enough to maintain them in the morning. This is the suggestion that comes from a study carried out by a researcher at the University of Nice (France), published in Health Psychology. The reason? Cortisol levels, the so-called “stress hormone”, which are higher in the morning, make it easier to adhere to a behavior to be repeated daily. We talk about it with Dr. Paolo Amami, neuropsychologist and psychotherapist at Humanitas.
A simple exercise, every morning
The study involved forty-eight students who in ninety days tried to adopt a healthy behavior, that is to say stretching the ileopsoas muscle, the flexor muscle of the hip. The exercise is useful to prevent back pain. Half of them were asked to do so in the morning, when cortisol concentrations are higher, and the remaining half before going to bed in the evening, when cortisone levels are approaching the minimum. The exercise lasted fifteen seconds.
With a smartphone application, participants had to report on whether they were stretching that day. The app noted the frequency and regularity of the exercise and also reminded students to undergo a cortisol test in saliva every 30 days.
Analysis of the results showed that morning group students were able to acquire the habit (i.e. remembering stretching independently) faster than the evening group. For the “mornings”, stretching had become habitual on day 105, for those in the evening after 154th day. The level of cortisol has been identified by researchers as an influencing factor for the process of acquiring a habit.
It seems, therefore, that changes in cortisol levels may affect the process of acquiring a routine: “The study shows that learning processes were similar in the morning and evening but in the “morning group” the stabilization of habit was faster. This data was further confirmed in the same study, in fact, by eliminating at statistical level the influence of cortisol, the timescales for acquiring habit became similar between the mornings and the subjects of the “evening group””.
In the morning, more time and energy
Learning is one of the most explored fields in psychology: A great number of researches have been analyzing, since the dawn of the discipline, with the aim of understanding how to generate and learn virtuous behaviors for the individual, what contribution can be made from the external context in order to maximize this behavior, what role can have the “prize”, or the reward to enjoy in the production of a certain behavior” recalls Dr. Amami.
The morning seems to be an ideal moment in which to insert a good practice that can become a habit: “At the beginning of the day – says Dr. Amami – you have a longer perspective in front of you and you can organize yourself in order to dedicate yourself to your activities, in fact our day and our duties still have to start and find a suitable moment to try to establish a certain behavior is easier. “Initially it will require a reminder, an external input that reminds us to perform that gesture, but later this process will be progressively internalized as the habit is formed and it will become increasingly easier to respect the routine. In the evening, on the other hand, we tend to be more tired, we are at the end of the day and it is probable that we have not been able to complete all the commitments in the set times, so there will be little time or little energy to devote to the establishment of a new habit “.
The study in question sought to deepen the aspects related to the metabolism of stress hormone, an internal factor able to explain some aspects of the learning process. However, according to the author of the study, its conclusions cannot be immediately generalized to everyone: cortisol levels depend on many factors, on the environment and on the individual’s ability to cope with stress and not just on the time of day. In addition – concludes Dr. Amami – the exercise required in the tests was very simple and the participants were boys and girls in perfect health. To adhere to more complex habits, in more fragile subjects, it will most likely take longer, although the behaviors that one would like to make customary are often small habits”.