3 Ways to Make Your Exercise Habit Stick

Park Fitness skipping
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When it comes to exercise, one thing we often focus on is motivation. As in getting motivated to do it and staying motivated enough to continue doing it. Most of us may think motivation is the first thing we need to make exercise a regular habit, but that isn't necessarily the case.

Ask any exerciser if they're really motivated to get up at 5 am to go to the gym and they'll probably say no. Does anyone really feel like exercising first thing in the morning?

Not likely. The truth is that motivation isn't the first thing that gets an exerciser out of bed, although it is an important element.

What does get that exerciser out of bed? That major ingredient has nothing to do with being excited about a workout. It's all about the exercise habit. Because that person has made a habit out of exercise, his mind and body know exactly what happens at 5 a.m. He gets up, he puts on his workout clothes and he works outs.

And he doesn't just do it because it's a habit—there has to be a reward there to keep him going, something he's getting out of that early morning workout. If not, why would he keep doing it? Maybe that reward is feeling good, feeling accomplished, or anticipating a beer after work. Whatever it is, it's something worth working for, at least for him.

It sounds simple—give yourself a reward and you'll start exercising, but if that were the case, everyone would already be exercising.

So, how does the non-exerciser, the new exerciser, the exercise 'hater' create that habit? Certainly, waking up early to workout isn't something you start doing and fall in love with. Yet, look at any gym in the morning and you'll see plenty of people who are doing just that.

What do they know that you don't?

They're not smarter than you and they don't have some magical gene that you don't. The real secret lies in your brain.

What Is a Habit?

You already know that a habit is a behavioral pattern we perform repeatedly and consistently. You probably have hundreds of habits, from how you get ready in the morning to how you fold your laundry. When you look deeper into how we create habits, Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit," suggests there are three important elements: the cue, the behavior, and the reward.

One example of a cue is putting your workout clothes next to the bed. As soon as you get up, you see those clothes and that's your cue to put them on in preparation for your workout. The behavior is completing your workout and the reward might be anything—feeling good about yourself, getting that runner's high, or giving yourself permission to have pizza for dinner.

As this suggests, habits often happen automatically and the more we do them, the deeper they're embedded in our brains. In fact, one specific part of the brain, the basal ganglia, is what rules our routines and habits. It's what kicks in when you're doing something automatically, like loading the dishwasher or driving a car.

You don't have to think about how to open the dishwasher, pick up a dish, and put it in. Nor do you have to think of the hundreds of movements you need to do to drive a car—get the keys, open the door, sit down, put on your seatbelt, etc.

This automation allows you to do these things without thinking, allowing your brain to free up space for more important things. But the only way you make those behaviors automatic is by doing them over and over so you don't have to think about them anymore.

That means the fact that you haven't been able to stick to an exercise habit may not be because you're doing something wrong.

It may be that your brain needs some re-wiring. You need to figure out what is cueing your current behavior, like skipping the gym after work or hitting the snooze button in the morning, break it down, and start working on each part.

The Secret Ingredients to Your Exercise Habit

What's interesting is that you need more than just a cue, a behavior, and a reward. As Duhigg explains, there are two other things you need to make a habit work, especially with exercise: A craving for the reward and the belief that you can actually do the workout you've planned.

It seems crazy that you could actually crave exercise, but cravings are what drive all of our habits. You brush your teeth because you crave that clean feeling in your mouth. You make the bed because you crave the feeling of being organized and neat. Those are small habits, but what about exercise?

In one study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers found that people who worked out at least three times a week started on a whim but continued exercising because they craved the reward. The top rewards were feeling good, craving the endorphins released during exercise, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Another necessary ingredient to your success is this: believing you can do it—that you can set up your habit, plan your workouts, and complete those workouts.

That confidence doesn't just happen but comes about when you approach exercise in the right way. You know the ingredients for a solid exercise habit—now what? Here's where to start. 

Creating Your New Exercise Habit to Make It Stick

The way we often approach exercise is often like this: "I want to lose weight, so I'm going to get up and go to the gym every day at 7 and workout for an hour." That new and improved future version of you is excited and the current you is raring to go. But what happens when reality hits?

Just think of everything you have to do to exercise every day, including the planning that goes into your workouts, the prep time of getting your exercise gear together and then the real work, from getting up to driving to the gym to doing your workout, and so on.

Working out involves a bunch of small behaviors but, added up, it's a lot when you don't already do those things. And when you realize how hard this process is, the reward may pale in comparison to the amount of work you'll have to do. That's especially true if your goal is to lose weight, a process that is usually very slow.

That's just one reason many of us fail to stick with that exercise habit, even though we want to be healthy and we want to lose weight. So, how do you do it?

1. Plan Your Cues

Studies of successful exercisers find that what works is choosing a very specific cue. Think of this cue as a kind of ritual that triggers your brain to think, "This is the time to exercise." This might be:

  • Scheduling your workouts on your calendar - Pick times and days you know you can squeeze in exercise, even if it's just 5 minutes. Maybe a walk after lunch every day or after dinner.
  • Putting on your workout clothes as soon as you wake up or get home from work.
  • Doing some other healthy behavior before your workout - Drink a glass of water, take some deep breaths, go for a quick walk or do some stretches. Sometimes just doing that one thing can put you in the mindset of exercise.
  • Write down your workout plan and put it next to the bed so it's the first thing you see when you wake up.

At the same time you're doing this, look at other cues you may have been following, the ones that trigger your urge to skip your workout.

Maybe you hit the snooze button instead of working out. Maybe you sit on the couch when you get home instead of changing into workout clothes. Just like you have a habit of sitting on the couch, you can create a new habit of exercising instead.

2. Plan Your Workouts

This is the critical part and often where we make our biggest mistakes. Because we're so eager to lose weight, wanting to make up for lost time, we tend to go too far with our workouts. Maybe you try to go back to a level of exercise you used to be able to sustain, or maybe you plan your workouts based on what you think you're supposed to do, such workout for an hour every day, do high intensity interval training and/or lifting heavy weights.

The problem with that approach is that you're not going to get a great reward. What you will get is very sore, a possible injury, and the question of why anyone would do this to themselves. The only way to really make exercise a habit is to make your workouts so easy and so doable that it feels silly not to do them.

Starting Small

As stated before, one of the key ingredients to making exercise a habit is the belief that you can do it. This is self-efficacy, knowing you can trust yourself to follow through. As Mark Sisson states in his article "Do You Really Believe You Can Change":

"Self-efficacy is your perception of your ability to complete a task - not to become a different person."

It's not about being a good or bad person based on whether you lose weight or not. It's about choosing your workout plan and knowing you can do it. It's that belief and mindset that really make an exercise habit stick. That means creating a workout you know you can do, even if that workout isn't even close to the exercise guidelines.

Forget working out for an hour or doing hardcore cardio training, and think more about workouts you can do no matter what, even when you're tired, stressed, or low on motivation.

Simple Workouts to Get You Started

  • 5-Minute Walk - Set a goal for just 5 minutes every day. Chances are you'll keep going a little longer than that.
  • Quick and Easy Core Workout - This workout includes 5 simple exercises that focus on building a strong core.
  • Beginner Ball Workout for Balance and Stability - This easy-to-follow workout has simple, feel-good exercises that are perfect for introducing your body to exercise.
  • Body Weight Exercises at Home - Another way to keep things simple is to choose a few exercises that don't require any equipment. Try a chair squat, a wall pushup, a basic lunge, rear flies, crunches and back extensions. Do about 10-16 reps of each exercise and, as you get stronger, do 2 or more sets.

3. Plan Your Rewards

Some of the rewards of exercise come naturally. Just completing a workout can feel good and, over time, if you're consistent you'll crave that feeling.

As mentioned before, other rewards are feeling accomplished and feeling good from the endorphins released during exercise. You can also create your own rewards such as:

  • A guilt-free hour of TV
  • A glass of wine with dinner
  • Pay yourself. Give yourself $5 for every workout you complete and plan what you'll get with that money at the end of the month.
  • Buy a new song or album
  • A hot bath
  • A new book to read
  • A new app - You probably won't be surprised to learn that there are apps out there that offer rewards. Charity Miles allows you to earn money for charity while you walk, run, bike or do any kind of activity. Bounts is an app that connects to a variety of fitness apps and tracking devices. Every time you workout, you earn points and use them for things like discounts from big name retailers.

The point is to reward yourself every single time you workout so you start to crave that reward.

Tips for Making Your Habit Stick

  • Try doing your workouts at the same time every day.
  • Create a ritual around your workout. Put on your workout clothes first thing or, if you're leaving from the office, put your gym bag in the seat next to you so just seeing it will remind you of your goals.
  • Log your workouts. Keep a simple calendar and put an 'X' down every day you workout.
  • Do something you like. You don't have to love it, but it should be an activity you know you can do without too much pain or discomfort.
  • Focus on the habit first, then the results. Too often we're so focused on losing weight that we end up quitting when that doesn't happen soon enough. Instead of focusing on that, focus on just doing the workouts, no matter what those workouts are like.

The key to creating an exercise is to make it as easy as possible to do your workouts. Choose accessible activities that you like, keep your workouts simple and focus on just showing up. Getting started is often the hardest more, so the easier you can make that, the more successful you'll be.

Sources:

Duhigg C. The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks; 2014.

Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur J Soc Psychol. 2010;40(6):998-1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674.

University of Kent. "Advocating for weight diversity: Prioritizing well-being over weight loss." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 October 2014. 

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