Make Exercising a Habit52 Weeks of Habits


Exercising is a habit. Once you’re in it, it’s easy to stay in it, but the reason so many people don’t exercise who want to is that they don’t know how to start. There’s a wealth of resources out there on what to do once you’re in the gym or on  the treadmill, but they’re all useless if you don’t have a reliable way to get yourself in the habit of going running, or going to the gym, and a way to get into that habit easily.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

The hardest part about getting into the habit of exercising is getting to the gym, and then doing it consistently. There are a few good tricks for doing this though, that will make it much easier.

Find Your Motivator

“I want to get in shape” isn’t a great motivator. It’s unclear, you don’t know how to tell when you get there, and it’s not special to you in anyway (how many people want to get out of shape?) Having a specific motivator you can cling to is incredibly useful, and many times the more specific it is the better. It could be something like “lose 10 pounds,” but I think something like this story is even better:

“I’ve been running for 15 years this August (I need to throw a party or something). The thing that kept me going early on, even though I was slow and fat, was just the idea that people thought I couldn’t. I don’t necessarily mean “you are fat”, but for me, having a mom who thought running was dumb and that I would give up, really forced me to not give up.”

Yours doesn’t have to have a negative motivator like this, but something very specific and personal to you that keeps you going can really help.

Set An Action Trigger

Find something in your day to day activities where you can say “As soon as X, I’ll go to the gym.” X could be leaving work, or waking up, or finishing a certain class, so long as you pick something that happens consistently where you can tack going to the gym on afterwards. It’s much easier to commit to doing something in the future than it is to do something right now, and it’s easier to go from one thing to another than to go from doing nothing to doing something.

Set a Meeting With Yourself

When was the last time you bailed on a meeting your boss invited you to? I’m going to assume you said never, and tell you that when it comes to health you have to be your own boss. Most people are connected enough to their calendar that once they put something in it, they’re much more likely to do it, so set a recurring exercise time in your schedule, as an action trigger after something else, to further enforce your commitment to going to it. This is part of why personal trainers are helpful–it’s easier to go to the gym when you’ve told someone you’re going to be there (and are paying them to meet you there).

Make it Seem Easy

Don’t go find a routine that demands 2 hours in the gym 6 days a week. When I started working out, part of the reason I felt like it wouldn’t be a big deal to start was that I was using The 4-Hour Body and that routine only demands 4 hours a month. Everyone has 4 hours in a month. (The problem with the 4-hour body though is that it suggests a non-regular workout schedule. If you’re taking the earlier advice about setting an action trigger and a scheduled time then you’ll want a more regular routine)

Keep a Gym Bag At the Ready

Having a gym bag always ready to go in your car will also make it much easier. Part of the idea with all of these techniques is to remove as many possible points of resistance between you and getting to the gym, and if you have a bag in your car with all of your gear and never take the clothes out unless you’re simultaneously putting new ones in; you’ll be even more likely to go. Just be sure to keep it stocked.

But all of these things are useless if you’re not enjoying being at the gym, so you need to…

Find a Fun Routine

I’m sure I’m committing some sort of gym heresy by saying this, but at least until you’re committed to going to the gym regularly it’s more important that you’re enjoying your routine than it is that you’re getting the maximum possible results. Once you’re exercising multiple days a week with regularity and enjoying yourself to the extent where it would be harder to stop than to keep going, then you can start changing things for “maximum gains,” but right now you need to get in the gym.

If you pick a routine that has an exercise you hate and that makes you not look forward to exercising, don’t do them. Or find an alternative.

On this note though, don’t engineer your own program. People get PhDs in this stuff for a reason. Don’t assume you know more than them. Select from one of the many esteemed routines floating around the internet, and feel free to try a few until you find one you like. Once you do though, commit to it for a while so you can really see results.

Okay so now you’re going to the gym and enjoying it, but how do you make sure you keep going?

Reinforce the Habit

First off, reinforcing working out is not that hard. Barring any major life change, you’ll likely want to keep working out after the first few times. The productivity, sleep, happiness, everything boost will make you not want to stop. That said, it’s useful to keep reinforcing it just in case.

Brag Intelligently

There’s a psychological effect called “substitution,” and essentially how it works is that once you tell someone about your goals you’re less likely to achieve them. You’ve already said “Hey! I’m going to lose 20 pounds!” and they go “Hey awesome!” and you get some satisfaction out of them congratulating you and presto, you feel less motivated to get the good feeling from actually losing the weight. So in order to avoid this, don’t tell people about your goals except for maybe a couple very close confidants.

What can be useful though is bragging about your progress. Using a site like Fitocracy, or Runkeeper, or posting your Fitbit results, can all help you get support from people for things you’ve already done. This is the way to do it, because the feeling of satisfaction you get from actually achieving something will encourage you to keep going.

In addition, tracking your progress is a great way to reinforce your exercise habit, because it gives you a very quantifiable way to look back on how successful you’ve been and keep pushing yourself further. One of the best ways to do this is taking progress pics. They can be every day, week, month, whatever works for you. The idea is to be able to look back at old pictures of yourself for where you’re coming from as a way to better see how far you’ve come.

Find a Partner

The second part of bragging intelligently is that you probably have someone who wants the same thing as you, but is having trouble getting there. If you can find someone to pursue your fitness goals with, you can keep each other going and really reinforce each other’s habit development. This would be the only person to tell your long term goals to.

Think of EVery Day you go as a Link in a Chain

Look at each day you successfully go to the gym based on your schedule as a successful additional link in a long chain of successes. Anytime you think to yourself about skipping a day, or procrastinating going, imagine that chain breaking and how long it will take to build it back up. You can even mark each success on a calendar to see how long your chain is getting. Every day that you go successfully, it will become harder and harder to let yourself stop.

Share Your Thoughts

If you use any of these techniques successfully, or have in the past, let me know in the comments! I love hearing from people and would love to get your feedback on these posts.

Big thank you to NerdMachine, frank_the_cat, eloua and AleksanderTheGreat from Reddit’s Fitness community for their suggestions on how to improve this article.



7 Responses to Make Exercising a Habit

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  6. 3 years ago by Doopy

    Most people go for the first month and after that they quit claiming that they will return back to it. It was quite funny to see most of them talking about their grand plans to come to the gym every 2 days. Indeed, it is better to talk about what you have done rather than what you want to do. The psychology you presented makes a lot of sense, thank you for letting us know about it!

    • 3 years ago by Nat

      I’ve seen that exact same thing happen countless times, and it’s likely to happen even more now that the New Year is starting. I’m glad you found the article useful!