How to Make Exercise a Habit That Sticks Once & For All
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Creating a new habit takes commitment, time, and effort. I had exercised inconsistently for the past few years, so I knew I had to make some changes. I did, and now I exercise Monday through Friday every week. Here’s how I made this habit stick with expert-backed tips.
Consistency is key when forming a new habit. You have to keep showing up. Researchers at Duke University say that 40% of your daily behaviors are your habits. You can choose what type of habits you have by stopping habits that don’t support good health and forming ones that do.
Sometimes I’m unmotivated and don’t want to go to the gym. Instead of worrying about how long my workout is or how much I need to do, I just go.
Even if I don’t complete my entire workout, at least I’m being consistent, which will solidify that habit.
So, I tell myself, even if I go to the gym and just do some strength training exercises, or some bodyweight exercises, or just walk for 5 minutes, then we’re good. More often than not, I end up really enjoying my workout and staying for the whole thing. I just have to tell myself to get there and stop overthinking it.
“Never miss a habit twice,” says James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. If you missed your workout yesterday, you have to go today. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be consistent.
Know Your Why
“Identify why you want to start exercising,” says Ryanne Mellick, M.A. in sports psychology and clinical psychology. What motivates you? Why do you want to make exercise a habit?
For example, maybe you want to lose weight, tone up, have better mental wellness, be stronger, have better balance, or be more flexible. Remembering your why can help you get motivated.
Keep it Interesting
Mix it up because it can get boring real fast if you’re doing the same thing every day. I stick to longer cardio workouts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then do a shorter cardio workout with strength training exercises on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Sometimes that doesn't go to plan either. Sometimes I get bored and want to cycle on an exercise bike instead of getting on the treadmill or elliptical. Sometimes I’d rather do some dance cardio. Sometimes I do machine training instead of bodyweight exercises. I just do what I feel like because I’m still sticking to my goal. It doesn’t matter if I veer off my plan a little.
“Schedule exercise into your daily routine, ideally at the same time every day. Scheduling makes habit formation easier and makes you feel less likely to skip over it,” notes Daniel Richter, certified personal trainer.
Set your goals and be specific with them. Write them down.
Where: Are you going to exercise at the gym, at home, outside, or somewhere else?
When: Set a phone alarm for your workouts. Keep it at the same time every day.
What: Which exercises are you planning? Write down your exercise plan for each day.
Use an app or journal to track your progress; you’ll feel great looking back on your achievements.
Use Habit Stacking
Habit stacking is using existing habits to create new habits. For example, when I set out to make it a habit to go to the gym five times a week, I used my existing habit of drinking a cup of coffee every morning. When I finish my coffee, I automatically go to the gym without thinking about it. I learned about habit stacking from Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.
You can use any existing habit — taking a shower, eating breakfast (or any meal), brushing your teeth, etc. Your current habits are already working, so adding a new practice makes it easier to form that habit. Then you can keep stacking to create even more healthy habits.
For example, my mornings currently look like this:
Wake up–drink coffee–work out
I can add more to that to increase my healthy habits like this:
Wake up–drink coffee–work out–meditate
Maybe you want to make an evening habit. That might look like this:
Wash face–brush teeth–change into pajamas–read 10 pages
Habit stacking can work with any current behaviors at any time of the day. Try habit stacking to make exercise a habit.
Make it Fun
I like to listen to music at the beginning of my workout and then listen to an audiobook for the last half. It helps me get motivated to finish my training, and listening to an audiobook is just fun. Plus, I get to check off two daily habits simultaneously.
You can watch a show or movie to help make your workout more engaging. Or you could meet up with friends and work out together. Whatever it is, make sure you’re enjoying it.
Make it Easy
Make your new habit so easy to stick to that it’s hard to say no. For me, this means keeping my workout clothes next to my bed. I also have a full water bottle on my kitchen counter and a packed gym bag next to the door. With these two preparations, I just get dressed, drink my coffee, grab my water bottle and bag, and go.
Other ways to make it easy:
Sleep in your workout clothes
Keep your gym bag ready to go
Put your sneakers right in front of the front door so you have to kick them out of the way or step over them to leave (your mind will get the message)
Meet a reliable friend early in the morning to exercise so you’ll feel extra guilty if you ditch her
Make your new habit as easy as possible, and you’ll be on the road to making exercise a habit that sticks.
Do a 7-day, 14-day, or 30-day challenge to get yourself exercising regularly. Then, reassess your goals to see what’s working and what isn’t.
A 2021 study found that it takes 59 days to make a new habit automatic. Be patient with yourself. Make a commitment and stick to it. Remember, it will get easier once that habit feels automatic.
Rest days are crucial for your exercise routine. You have to give your body time to heal. I use Saturdays and Sundays to rest, but you can choose any day you want. It doesn’t have to be two days in a row. Just stick to a regular schedule so you can form that automatic habit.
If you need an accountability partner to help you make exercise a habit, sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer today.