8 Tried-and-True Strategies to Make Exercise a Habit That Sticks
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You’ve made the decision to build exercise into a habit, but you’re not sure where to start. Maybe you’ve struggled to find a consistent workout routine in the past, or maybe you're brand new to this whole fitness thing.
Whatever your situation, we’ve got good news: Forming an exercise habit is easier than you think. It’s all about understanding and harnessing motivation and using simple, feel-good strategies to build momentum over time.
So how do you get there? We did tons of research and asked top experts to break everything down. Here’s what you need to know!
The Psychology Behind Motivation
First it’s important to understand a bit about the psychology behind motivation.
According to Dr. Saara Haapanen, PhD in exercise psychology who’s spent more than two decades researching and teaching motivation, it’s helpful to think of willpower as a gas tank.
“Your gas tank is fullest in the morning. And you have to make decisions all through the day. And at the end of the day, your willpower will be closer to empty than full,” explains Haapanen.
Decision fatigue (the idea that the more decisions you make throughout the day, the more depleted your ability to make decisions becomes) and exhaustion can make it a lot harder to stick to our goals. Even tiny decisions — like what to wear to your workout — require brain power and can zap your tank a little bit.
It’s easier to make smart decisions and stick to your plan in the morning when you’re rested. That’s why many experts, including Haapanen, suggest starting your workout early in the day. That way, you get your movement in before life gets in the way or you talk yourself out of showing up.
“You’re gonna get it out of the way, but you’re also going to get a nice dopamine hit, and serotonin,” says Haapanen. Dopamine and serotonin are feel-good chemicals that help regulate bodily functions. They’re one of the reasons you feel so amazing after a workout.
“And you’re going to have momentum towards your goals because you promised yourself something, and you followed through on that,” she adds.
Bottom line: Be aware of your motivation and willpower decreasing throughout the day, and use it to your advantage to build a lasting exercise habit.
Habit-Stacking Can Be a Game Changer
Speaking of decision fatigue, habit-stacking is one promising way to build habits. Habit stacking is taking something you already do, and stacking a new habit on top of that.
“We have 60,000 thoughts every single day, and our subconscious automates 95% of them — they just copy and paste from the day before,” reveals Haapanen. “So with habit-stacking, you kind of get rid of that decision fatigue.”
For example, you might do 10 squats after brushing your teeth. That way, brushing your teeth each day prompts you to do squats. Soon, it becomes an automatic habit and you don’t need to think about or decide anything!
Gina Newton, NASM-certified personal trainer and holistic body coach, has seen plenty of clients achieve new habits with this strategy.
One client stacked a walk onto waiting at her kids’ school bus stop.
“She has to get the kids off the bus anyway, but she simply expanded the time for herself to move her body and the habit has really stuck!” shares Newton.
Think about what you’re already doing as part of your routine, and how you might be able to expand it to include movement.
Pro tip: Try a visual cue, like keeping your yoga mat next to the spot where you drink coffee. That way, the mat serves as a daily visual reminder to keep up with your new yoga-after-coffee habit.
Try Intentional Implementation
Intentional implementation is a plan you make that addresses exactly how, where, and when you plan to take action.
For example, “I will go for a walk in my neighborhood after I drop my kid off at the bus on Tuesday morning.”
Intentional implementation addresses:
The behavior (walking)
The time (Tuesday morning after bus drop)
The location (around the neighborhood)
This strategy might seem a little too simple, but it’s got powerful results. In fact, more than 90 studies have shown that intentional implementation has a medium-to-large positive effect on goal attainment.
But why is it so powerful? The truth is, sometimes our goal-setting is too vague. We might say we want to work out more or eat healthier. But according to Dr. Haapanen, our brains simply don’t know what to do with these undefined goals.
It’s much more effective to make a specific plan. Here’s what that might look like:
Instead of: I will work out more.
Try: I will exercise for 20 minutes at 9 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Instead of: I will eat healthier.
Try: I will prepare healthy meals and snacks for the week every Sunday after grocery shopping.
This also helps eliminate decision fatigue because you’ve decided in advance and made a plan for implementation.
6 More Tried-and-True Strategies Experts (And Their Clients!) Love
1. Stick With It
New habits don’t form overnight, so consistency is key — especially in the beginning. According to one study, forming a new habit takes an average of 66 days. But it can take anywhere between 18 to 254 days, depending on the individual and the level of dedication needed for the habit.
For example, incorporating vitamins into your daily routine might only take you a few weeks, while forming a gym-going habit could take a bit longer to stick. Keep in mind that achieving your long-term fitness goals is a marathon, not a sprint. Slow and steady wins the day.
2. Start Small
A lot of us believe that if we aren’t hitting the gym for two hours a day, we’re not really working out at all. But exercise doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. So ignore that perfectionist, self-critical voice and start small.
“Tell yourself you’re gonna do it for five minutes and then see how you feel,” suggests Dr. Haapanen. “Usually once you start moving, it’s enough to get those good-feeling chemicals, your dopamine, your serotonin. Getting started is often the hardest part.”
If you hit five minutes and want to keep going, great! If not? That’s fine too. Five minutes is better than nothing.
3. Find Activities You Love
Don’t think your workout has to look any one way. Find something you enjoy doing so it will be easy to stick with it. Whether it’s dancing, TRX, rollerblading, lifting weights, hiking, or biking — there’s something for everyone.
4. Sneak Movement Into Your Day
When it comes to daily movement, little things can really add up.
“Exercise does not need to be a big to-do. It can be 10–15 minutes of yoga, a 15-minute walk, squats while you brush your teeth, a plank while you play on the floor with your kids,” explains Newton. “It’s a little like hiding the vegetables in the mash potatoes. Mix in the exercises in your day rather than trying to carve out time you may not have.”
You can also try challenging yourself in little ways, like parking farther away from the door during errands, or taking the elevator at work instead of the stairs.
5. Understand Your Why
Your “why” can be a powerful motivator. Why do you want to form a new exercise habit? Dr. Haapanen suggests really diving into that why, and even asking yourself “why” five to seven times to go deep. Here’s what that might look like:
Why do I want to run five days a week? So I can run farther.
Why do I want to run farther? So I can complete a half-marathon.
Why do I want to complete a half-marathon? So I will feel like an accomplished runner.
Why do I want to feel like an accomplished runner? Because after I got sick last year, I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to run again. Running makes me feel most alive. Now that I can run again, I want to really focus on building a habit around it.
See how powerful and positive that motivation becomes when you get to the heart of it? Suddenly, you’re running because it’s an integral part of your healing, not just because you want to reach longer distances.
Intrinsic motivation — like feeling good and having more energy — is more powerful fuel for new habits than exercising for cosmetic changes. It might feel nice to look better in clothes, but will it give you the motivation needed to work out day after day?
6. Set Realistic Goals
Setting unattainable goals puts you at a disadvantage right from the beginning. It’s better to start small and build slowly than to burn out before you get off the ground. One strategy is to have a realistic weekly goal you can work toward consistently, plus a stretch goal if you’re having an especially energetic week.
Maybe you commit to three 20-minute workouts weekly, with a stretch goal of five workouts per week. Or maybe your stretch goal is one hour-long workout per week. Whatever it is, don’t get too hung up on numbers. Building a long-term habit should be about feeling good and building on positive momentum, not being hard on yourself.
Willpower and motivation are finite resources that deplete throughout the day. Creating an exercise habit takes dedication, but it’s not impossible if you use the right strategies. Motivation experts suggest habit-stacking, intentional implementation, and starting small and building as you go.
Most importantly, identify your why and find movement that you love. If you’re having fun, exercise will feel like something you get to do rather than another “should” on your to-do list. When you’re ready to start following a goal-oriented exercise program, get a free consultation with a personal trainer who can help you design a balanced, customized exercise plan to help you reach your goals.