Drill sergeant. Workout buddy. Cheat day. We all have reasons to go to the gym, but what does it take to make it as automatic as brushing your teeth?

On the heels of her best-selling book “Grit,” (Scribner, 2016) you might expect Angela Duckworth, MacArthur “genius” grant winner, founder of Character Lab, researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania to say that perseverance is all you need to form good habits. But Duckworth and Wharton School professor Katherine Milkman understand that we actually know less than we should about why people intend to make positive changes and fail to turn actions—from saving for retirement to taking life-saving medication to exercising regularly—into habit.  That’s why they’ve teamed up with 24 Hour Fitness to offer the StepUp Program – a free, non-profit, 28-day online program that only takes a few minutes of commitment each week and is built by scientists to test the best ways to help you kick-start an exercise habit.


In case you think the problem of follow-through is so intractable that it’s not worth studying, Duckworth says, “Behavior change is the semiconductor for the 21st century.” With the progress humans have made on fundamental aspects of survival such as food, shelter and transportation, Duckworth is blunt: “The final frontier is human nature itself. If we cannot do what’s in our best interest repeatedly over time—eat the right things, go to sleep at the right time, spend the time with our friends and family instead of surfing YouTube videos, we’ll never find enduring meaning and happiness.”

Now, Duckworth and Milkman are heading a research initiative that could actually transform society. Duckworth is “very optimistic” that we’ll come up with practical solutions for lasting behavior change. 24Life sat down with Duckworth and Milkman to find out more about their initiative, which built the StepUp Program and is inviting hundreds of thousands of people to sign-up to help themselves and to help leading scientists uncover how best to turn a few good choices into lasting habits.

24Life: Your vision is for hundreds of thousands of people to help in the research—and that’s just at the gym. You’re also studying financial and other health behaviors with other institutions. How is such a huge participation rate possible, and how can people take part?

AD: Instead of being constrained by face-to-face research—standing in front of a group of people—we can reach thousands, even millions, seamlessly through digital means. It’s easy to scale when you can reach people through videos, questionnaires, text messages and emails, and delivering digital incentives.

KM: Here’s how 24 Hour Fitness members can help us make history with this research: They can enroll in the StepUp Program, a 28-day program based on one large-scale study that showed that 28 days of building a gym habit increased gym going for up to 52 weeks afterward. That’s the basic premise, and we’re testing 57 different user paths to figure out what works best to create lasting behavior change. For example, we’re offering Amazon cash as an incentive.

24Life: New Year’s resolutions might be gathering dust, but summer vacation is around the corner. How likely are people going to tackle a new goal or revisit that resolution?

KM: That’s a great question that Google’s head of HR posed to me several years ago. There wasn’t really any research on when it’s the most effective to prompt people to make change in their lives. So I started a research program with Hengchen Dai, at the time a doctoral student and now a faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles and a member of our scientific team, to understand when is it that people are most motivated to change.

It turns out that the “fresh start” psychology around New Year’s is actually repeated at other points in our lives. The beginning of every new week offers another fresh start, giving us a sense that we’re disconnected from our past failures and providing the motivation to try again. Other fresh starts include the beginning of a new season, holidays or birthdays and other events that stand out from the ordinary in of our lives, like starting a new school, a new job or celebrating an anniversary.  These are great times to tackle new goals (and sign up for the StepUp Program).

24Life: Is there anything that’s a true obstacle to people forming good habits?

AD: If you try to swim upstream entirely against the current of everyone else in your life, it’s unlikely that you’ll succeed, so try to get people to swim in your direction. Make a tally sheet of all the people whose routines will also have to change when you change yours, and figure out a way to make it a win-win. Maybe your spouse can be convinced to go to the gym with you for some together time or join your new breakfast routine because it’s good for him or her to eat healthfully in the morning.

Want to change your behavior for good once and for all? Join 24 Hour Fitness and 47 world-class scientists to explore and understand what makes behavior change stick. The 28-day StepUp Program is free to 24 Hour Fitness members and launches in mid-April. Sign up at 24go.co/stepup

Photo credit:Mark Kuroda, kurodastudios.com; The University of Pennsylvania
Hair and make-up: Ava Roston


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Lashaun Dale

Lashaun Dale loves yoga and fitness and finds magic in movement, music and mobs of people. She holds degrees in International Relations, Philosophy and Applied Anthropology, as well as an MPH from the School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York. With two decades of group fitness programming experience, Dale is former editor-in-chief of 24Life magazine, a regular contributor to SELF and Women’s Health and Fitness, as well as popular blogs and podcasts. She’ll teach yoga anytime she is given an opportunity to get her om on.