I’ll skip the usual introductory lecture about how you should be exercising regularly. You already know you should be taking care of your body. That’s probably a big part of why you’re here.
This article is about how you can turn exercise into an integral part of your life. Something you do often; not because you have an iron will, but because you’re compelled to by your brain’s automatic processes.
Staying Fit Comes From Building The Habit
Over the long-term, sticking with a fitness routine is about turning it into a habit: Something that you do automatically and without much conscious effort.
Yes, you will probably have to work hard in the beginning to get yourself up and moving. There’s no getting around that.
But the more you do it, the easier it will become.
That’s how habit formation works: Repeat a behavior enough times and it will become hardwired into your memory, and you will begin to experience it as automatic and low-effort.
This is supported by research too. For example, a 2016 study in the journal, Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology compared people who were new to exercise (called “initiators”) to people who had been exercising for many years (called “maintainers”).
They found that initiators had to find internal motivators (like enjoyment of exercise or stress reduction) to get them working out. But not maintainers. Rather than making themselves work out, maintainers did it because it was habitual for them.
This shows that becoming someone who stays fit, even into your 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, need not be a constant battle with yourself.
Here are some straightforward ways to make fitness a habit for you too.
Simple Ways to Build Your Fitness Habit
The trick here is to find ways to just get yourself to begin working out. That’s where the habit formation needs to happen. The intention to exercise. Because once you start, most of the work is done.
#1 Start small
Focus on just doing some amount of exercise to begin with, even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time.
It doesn’t have to be intense exercise either. Go for a quick walk (or jog) around the block. Or do 10 push ups and 10 sit ups. Or 3 sets of 5 air squats. Just get your body moving. The idea is to consistently have the intention of doing some exercise, as this is what will help build your fitness habit.
What’s more, even a little bit of exercise is still really good for you.
National guidelines and recommendations in the media suggest that we need to be doing 150 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity exercise per week. That’s 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week.
If you’re someone who doesn’t currently do much (or any) exercise, that’s an understandably daunting prospect.
While this recommendation is made in good faith, it’s actually not helpful or necessary. Research shows that less than half that amount of exercise can produce significant health benefits.
Start small. It’s much more doable to consistently get yourself doing a short workout than slogging it out for a half hour or more from the get go. And once you start, often you’ll find it easy to keep going and do more and more each time.
#2 Choose your times wisely
Exercise at the times that are best for you. Forget all the advice out there about certain times of day being optimal for working out.
The optimal time for working out is when you are best able to. That means either when you can actually make the time, or when you have the most mental energy available.
I work out in the evenings after my kids have gone to bed because that’s the best and most convenient time for me. That’s when I can make the time to exercise. Identify when is most convenient for you to make the time and plan around that.
Similarly, some people are morning people. They thrive in the early hours. Working out at 5am for those people may be perfect because that’s when they have the mental capacity for it. Others are not morning people. Some are night owls, and have the most mental energy for exercise in the evenings.
Target the time when you have the least mental barriers to making that start. That’s what will get you exercising most often, and that’s what will help build the habit.
#3 Be consistent with your time
Following on from above, while you must choose your times wisely, also try to make sure that you’re consistent with when you workout.
Researchers call this “temporal consistency”.
Our bodies adapt to consistency, and form habits around cues. Time of day is a very strong cue and the likely trigger for many of our daily habits. Working out at the same time every day will eventually create a trigger for your exercise habit. Indeed, studies have found that temporal consistency is the strongest predictor of exercise habit formation.
Exercise at the same time every time and eventually, come that time of day, you’ll feel compelled to workout.
#4 Track your exercise
Practice makes progress and progress makes success. Small wins are incredibly powerful at driving behavior. In fact, focussing on making progress in small increments is far more motivating than looking ahead toward lofty goals.
Tracking your exercise, each and every day, helps you see just how much great work you’re doing. How much progress you’re making. This kind of self-monitoring is well-known to improve motivation to exercise because it keeps your small wins highly visible.
Thankfully, advances in fitness technology now makes tracking your exercise very easy to do. There are a range of fitness trackers and freely available smartphone apps that help you stay across how much you’re doing in each workout (and over the long-term). This helps you review the progress you’re making, which can help you stay motivated to keep building the habit.
Tracking your exercise also makes it easier to turn your workouts into a competition against yourself.
#5 Go into competition against yourself
The desire to prevail (usually over others) is often what drives humans to achieve great feats. And anyone who has played a sport knows that competition can be a strong motivator for physical activity.
But, we don’t all have the time or energy to find others to compete with. We may not have the desire or ability to get into social competitive sports, especially with work and family taking up the majority of our time.
So, the next best thing is to compete against yourself.
“Always do more” is the credo that I use. It means that I always aim to do more than I did in the workout before. And more can be as much or as little as I like. Do one more rep. Do one more set. Lift a heavier weight. Run a little further. Ride a little faster. Always more.
This works exceptionally well in helping to maintain the motivation to exercise because it keeps the competitive juices flowing.
Consistently doing more also taps into the exercise training principle of progressive overload. This is the observation that continually increasing the demands we place on our body is the only way to get our bodies to continually adapt. Continually get fitter, faster, stronger. Continually make progress and achieve those powerful small wins.
#6 Make it social
If you have friends, family or colleagues that are willing and able to exercise with you, then take the opportunity.
Research consistently shows that exercising with people in your social network (or just having them encourage you) helps to increase short-term motivation to workout. Working out with friends, partners, siblings and even parents can make exercise more fun, as well increase your own accountability on days when you’re just not feeling it (because you will have to make plans with others and often will be compelled to honor this social contract).
In my experience, having one or more friends to exercise with is the most effective form of social support that helps to make exercise enjoyable, feel less difficult, and ultimately turn it into a habit. Doing something that’s good for you with people you like often creates an experience where exercise doesn’t actually feel like exercise.
#7 Focus on benefits other than body image
Many people decide to start working out because they want to be happier with the way they look. Improving our body image can be a compelling reason to start a program of exercise.
Unfortunately, focusing on body image may also be the thing that makes you quit before the habit has taken hold. It can lead you to compare yourself to others who are more advanced than you (called “upward social comparisons”), which actually decreases motivation to continue exercising.
Avoid comparing yourself to the thin / muscular / athletic types in magazines and at the gym.
Instead, focus on the health benefits, the family benefits, the benefits of being strong, or the benefits of being able to outcompete others. Remind yourself that your health and well-being is ultimately all that matters.
And there are a lot of additional benefits to be focused on.
Medical research into the benefits of regular physical activity has always been consistently positive. Studies show that you’re likely to enjoy a range of physical health benefits and improvements in psychological well-being from regular exercise, including:
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Lower risk of chronic disease (e.g., heart disease, various cancers, diabetes, etc.)
- Better sleep and more energy
- More muscle and less fat
- A greater sense of happiness and joy
- Less anxiety, stress and depression
- Improved memory, learning and academic performance
As you can see, there’s much to be gained and very little to be lost from making exercise a habit and staying fit over the course of our lives.
And while it does require some effort, it doesn’t have to be a lengthy battle. In fact, if you’re smart about it, building an exercise habit will happen fairly quickly. Habits around complex behaviors like working out tend to form in 30 – 90 days depending on how consistent you are.
Being smart about it means using the tricks and tips above, which are informed by scientific research and experience. But, remember to give yourself a break if you don’t get everything right straight away or falter from time to time. This is a long-term thing, not a quick fix. You got this.
Words: Eamonn @ The Home Fit Freak