Could Exercise Be Your Keystone Habit?

Keystone representing the concept of keystone habit

As there are stones and keystones, there are habits and keystone habits.

There are habits, and then there are keystone habits. Today I want to discuss the concept of keystone habits I learned from Charles Duhigg’s book the Power of Habit.

I believe the difference between keystone habits and other habits is important to anyone who wants to make lasting lifestyle changes.


The essence of keystone habits is that not all habits are created equal. Some habits matter more than others, meaning that they have the power to start a chain reaction that changes other habits in their wake – even in unrelated areas of individuals’ lives.

 Exercise is a keystone habit for many people

According to Duhigg, studies have shown that when people start exercising regularly, they start (unconsciously) changing their behaviour in unrelated areas of their lives. They start eating better, become more productive at work, decrease their levels of stress, smoke less and also use their credit cards less.

Now who wouldn’t want an effect like that? And you could get that effect by just starting to exercise regularly once a week.

Food Journaling As A Keystone Habit

What comes to weight loss, there is evidence that food journaling is a keystone habit for many people. Duhigg tells about a study where researchers asked participants – sixteen hundred obese people – to jot down everything they ate once a week.

Despite the fact that it was tough going in the beginning, over time, keeping a food journal started having an effect on people’s eating-related behaviors. People started noticing patterns in their eating, and then started preparing for their mid-morning munchies by always keeping healthy snacks at hand. Other people started using their food journals for planning their future meals, which meant that they would eat healthy meals more often.


I think that the concept of keystone habit is so important because it highlights the fact that not all habits are equally important. When we want to make lasting lifestyle changes – like lose weight – we often turn our lives upside down and make all possible changes at the same time. Your new life probably lasts no more than several weeks or months.

A better strategy is to focus on changing the keystone habits in your like rather than overhauling your whole life.

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  1. Marion says:

    Hi Satu! Great post! Regarding food journaling, that is definitely what I guessed was my keystone habit for eating right now. Then I read in your post, this author found the same result. Food journaling is annoying at first, but then it makes complete sense out of eating. The very reason why I lost so much weight lately is because I understand my eating patterns so much better due to food journaling. Then, I can tweak it to improve it. I also eat far less often because I am somewhat lazy about journaling.

    Regarding the gym, at first, I needed to go to the gym every single weekday, because I was trying so hard to make it a habit. Years later, I just love the gym so much that I really don’t need so much habit anymore. Still, I do follow a fitness plan, which I write in my fitness journal. I’ve completed several fitness journals now, which also helped me improve more quickly, much like food journaling. Fitness journaling made me see patterns, and tiny improvements, and made me see different exercise orders that made a big difference.

    I can’t explain exactly why food and fitness journaling works so well. I just know that if you experience them, then you will easily understand. It just makes everything so clear!

    🙂 Marion

    • Satu says:

      Thank you for a great comment, Marion! 🙂

      I just recently started keeping a combined fitness and weight loss journal, so I don’t yet know what the effect will be. Hopefully earth-shattering. 🙂 I know that you keep (and praise) a fitness journal and I’ve been nagging myself about starting one for a long time. . Actual food journaling happens online, so I don’t record my food in my weight loss & fitness journal, just general daily observations about my eating and exercise etc.

      The book explaiins that keystone habits are behaviors that allow frequent “small wins”. That’s a good topic for another post!

  2. Oh… a keystone habit. I need to re-adopt exercise as mine. I’ve really struggled lately and haven’t wanted to do it at all. I go to my 2 Zumba classes, but as for walks or strength work, I just can’t be bothered!!!

    Love this post Satu!

    • Satu says:

      I think that even taking the two classes is good, Deb! Your sticking to Zumba means that you really like it and that is the most important thing in my mind.

  3. Gordon says:

    Good post Satu. My keystone habit – running – began 26 years ago at the age of 54. And you’re right, it changed my life in all sorts of other ways too – surreptitiously and all for the better.
    I’ve never kept a food journal but I’ve eaten more healthily over the years – with the odd few treats thrown in, mostly at weekends or celebratory occasions. My weight has remained fairly constant around the 10st mark since I began running, down from 11st 4lbs, and I’m happy with that. I always think dieting and calorie counting are a woman’s thing! The majority of men never give it a thought.
    As regards my running journals, I’ve recorded every run I’ve ever done and totted up mileages religiously. To date I’ve amassed a staggering 35,398 miles and run 180 races. Even this year, having reached the grand old age of 80, I’ve clocked over 1,000 miles. I’m still enjoying it all, and being able to combine it with my love of the great outdoors. It seems the most natural thing to do and gives a great feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction. Can’t imagine why I didn’t adopt this keystone habit much earlier!

    • Satu says:

      Hi Gordon!

      I LOVE your comment and your story. Your’e a prime example of a keystone habit in action.

  4. Aimee says:

    Excellent post Satu. After years of attempting weight loss I actually abandoned all efforts to some degree. I started running slowly and very short distance. As my running picked up and I was able to go longer distances I began signing up for races. I realized that I thrived on training schedules. If I was training for something I was guaranteed to exercise most days of the week. This has developed into a keystone habit for me. I always have a workout plan now whether there is a race on the horizon or not. It’s more for organization than accountability. The habit is set in place now.

    This year has been about tackling my food issues. Like Marion I have also made food journaling a habit despite not enjoying the task at first. I journal with Weight Watchers online so I use their point system. I haven’t been able to pre-plan meals yet, but I am finding the system useful in helping me to gauge my portions and when I need to stop for the day. I have far less “bad” eating days.

    The days of going on a drastic all or nothing diet are long over. It seems I needed to work on one thing at a time in order to be successful at losing weight and keeping it off.

    • Satu says:

      Hi Aimee!

      I’ve noticed myself it’s much easier to make exercise a permanent part of my life than improve my eating habits. Maybe that is because eating and body weight are so intimately associated with self-esteem and feelings of self-worth?

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