Developing certain habits, especially the exercise habit, can be rough. It’s usually a multiple-step process where the 28-day rule to create a habit you often hear about, rarely applies. And never ever is it one-step-and-you’re-done. Sometimes, even after months of consistency, you’ll get off course. And there you were thinking, I’ve got this, right? The trick is not to stay off course for too long. I give myself a 2-week limit. If I wait any longer to get back to my walks and workouts, it gets harder to get back to it.
My own path to exercise consistency and creating the habit was not a smooth one. I was yo-yo exercising for years — taking months- and years-long breaks before I made the commitment to never let that happen again. On my road to exercise consistency, I’ve learned a lot. In this post, I’m sharing some of the best tips to help you make exercise a lifelong habit.
1. Dig deep for your Whys
We each have to figure out what that thing is that’s going to make us commit mentally—to exercise or anything else we want. You have to, as they say, want it badly enough. I didn’t always have the healthiest reasons to exercise and wasn’t always consistent, but I was definitely mentally committed.
In my teens and 20s, my reasons were superficial (to not go above a size 4 and to look good in my clothes). A combination of diets and off-and-on workouts helped me maintain my weight. Superficial yes, but it worked. Years later, I noticed the extra energy and confidence I had when I was exercising regularly. Even though I still wasn’t the most consistent exerciser, I really wanted to be. I would hire trainers and tried all sorts of things to help me keep at it. When I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, the stakes got even higher. It’s been my most compelling reason to not only exercise but to make it a habit.
Your reasons may not look like mine but like me, they may vary over time. Along the way, if you keep digging for the most important reason you have to exercise the deeper your commitment will be.
2. Work out your resistance
It’s natural to resist change. We all have two sides to us: one side is future-oriented and practical, the other side is a toddler who likes instant gratification. The toddler will do, as toddlers do, and resist your efforts to change. You have to be the adult who tricks, coaxes, and encourages that other side of you to do what’s best for you. I like to use Future-Me as my motivation to do the right thing today.
3. Start small
It’s natural to want to see some quick results. They can be very encouraging. The problem is quick results don’t last. Slow and steady is not only more sustainable, but you are also building the exercise habit when you take that approach.
4. Exercise in the morning or by noon
Willpower is a fickle mistress. You have to catch her early in the day if you want to be sure to get what you need from her. Like the battery in your smartphone, your willpower starts full (or at least at peak capacity) in the morning and keeps draining and getting lower as the day goes on.
5. Do it when you don’t feel like it
Confidence comes from a few things, including how others respond to us. But the most profound sense of confidence comes from how we feel about ourselves. And nothing fills us with more pride and confidence than knowing we follow through. Every time we flake off on our word, we reinforce the idea that we don’t believe and don’t work for what we want. When you don’t feel like exercising, the fix is to remind yourself that you always feel better afterward. Something else I do to psyche myself up when I don’t want to work out is to imagine my life in a year or two. I remind myself that that is the version of me I’m doing it for.
6. Do it as part of a routine
You’ll be more consistent when exercise and working out is part of a bigger routine, like your morning routine.
7. Find the best time and conditions for you to exercise
For me, finding the right time of day was crucial. It turns out that working out around 6:00 a.m. was the magical formula. No matter how committed I was, trying to work out after work was hit or miss. I was often so tired after work that going to the gym was out of the question. I also find it virtually impossible to exercise without music. I like to work out with other people so I have to take at least one class a week. Convenience is something else that affects my exercise game. That gym, tennis court, or sports field needs to be within 5 minutes of me if I’m to work out regularly.
Whatever those conditions are for you, figuring them out and working them into your lifestyle is going to increase your commitment and help you stick to the habit.
8. Do a variety of exercises
The gym is my constant but when the weather is nice, there are several other workouts that I like to do (thankfully!). I think we all need that variety, otherwise, exercise can get boring and feel uninspiring. When you’re planning how to be consistent, think about a few sports and activities to work into your exercise game plan. Plan your winter routine, summer programs, vacation, and travel options. Have those options worked out before you need them.
9. Identify and solve the real conflicts
So, here you are. You’ve found compelling reasons to workout and you’re all-in mentally, but somehow, you still backslide. What gives? It could be any number of other things, but the most common is that you’re still living with what is your real conflict. The real reason we don’t exercise, keep our word to do XYZ is not willpower, as we like to think. Conflicts like a work-life-balance situation, problems with emotional eating, and financial struggles, are distracting for anyone. Until you resolve them, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ll be yo-yoing. In my case, I didn’t realize what a difference getting up 90 minutes earlier would make, but it was huge. It was only by setting aside the time—time no one else could touch—that I resolved my last major (and real conflict) at the time.
10. Have the right attitude about it
You may never become an exercise-buff, but I bet there is something you like doing or need to be doing more of. If you need to be more social and make friends, look for pickup games in your neighborhood or form a sports team. I need time to read articles and books so I multitask and get to them while I’m on the treadmill. I also use my “morning walk” on the treadmill to plan articles, work out business ideas, read and respond to emails. Whatever kind of life I have or needs I have, I know there’s a way to look at exercise as more than exercise.
To make exercise a habit will not be a single-step process. It may take starts-and-stops and issues to work out along the way, but with consistency as your destination, you can get there.
Christine is a lifestyle coach living in Los Angeles. Using systems, routines, and some psychological trickery, she can help almost anyone hack their mind and life for greater productivity. Email email@example.com to find out if she's available for one-on-one work.