The biggest problem with exercising is how to make it a daily habit. Can you change that? How can you build an exercise habit that sticks for a long time?
Experts tell us if we walk for only 7½ hours a week all through the year, we could add up to 4½ years to our lifespan. To get that advantage, you have to have a daily exercise regimen. We share the best insights and tips here.
∇ This epic post covers almost everything on creating a daily exercise habit. Free ebook (PDF) is at the end (no email required).
5 Key Ideas To Build An Exercise Habit
There are 5 specific steps you can use to form any habit, not just exercise. To be clear, by exercise, we mean planned, structured, repetitive, and purposeful physical activity.
Here are 5 habit-keys to form a sticky exercise routine:
1. Set Off The X Effect
Since we intrigued you with the X Effect Method of Completing Goals above, here’s the Reddit thread to catch it.
What it essentially says is you draw a 7x7 grid of 49 squares on a card, label it for a new habit, and keep putting a red X on each square for each day you complete it. You could target something as easy as a 7-minute workout routine.
And now, let’s go deeper.
2. Watch Your Routine
Do you have a morning routine? It begins from there. Start by tracking your morning routine. Watch out if there are any unhelpful or time-wasting habits built into your mornings?
Be warned: Once you realize you spend 25 minutes every morning wading knee-deep through the freshwater stream of social media, you might end up feeling it has not been quite as life-changing as you thought. Why have you been doing this useless thing for so many years?
See the pattern up close. Once you spot the nasty habit, it will be easier to pull out the wiggly worm and put it away.
But really, it’s more than breaking a useless habit. The best way to break it is to replace it with a good one. Trying to break an awful habit is ultimately self-defeating labor if you are not ready with a replacement habit. It gets you circling back to the same negative habit.
Charles Duhigg, the author of Smarter, Faster, Better, suggests we must replace our bad habits with good ones through repetitive actions. The mini-changes over days lead to big rewards in personal and professional life.
Why morning, you may ask?
Because mornings are the best times to stay on track with an exercise regime for city-bred guys like us. Once our white-collared workday begins, it is mayhem. The tasks demanding your attention drain your energy faster than you know.
Exercising in the mornings is like you train for the fight before the show begins. Your willpower is much stronger in the morning than later in the day. Find out how you can increase your willpower with these scientific methods.
3. Start A Ritual
Begin a ritual instead of trying to focus on forming a habit. Habits do not work; rituals do.
Habits are spontaneous behaviors. All habits begin with a decision and ultimately become automatic behavior.
Rituals are the opposite of habits. A ritual requires intention, attention, and engagement. It is never automatic.
Thanh Pham, Founder and Managing Director of Asian Efficiency, explains why rituals fare better than habits. Pham offers an elegant definition of a ritual: ultra-specific step-by-step instructions that are easily repeatable and help you get a specific outcome.
Charles Duhigg writes on Quora, “Rituals, by contrast, are almost always patterns developed by an external source, and adopted for reasons that might have nothing to do with decision making.”
Simplified, when you do an activity with awareness and mindfulness, you’re carrying out a ritual. As you approach your exercise with a ritualistic intent, it becomes a habit in time. So, set your mind to start with a ritual.
Let’s explore this with an example.
You wake up, get out of your bed, and consciously put on your running shoes instead of slippers. That’s the first step. Now, tell yourself you can’t take those shoes off until you’ve walked around the block for the day.
If you do this ritual for enough days, it becomes a habit.Start a ritual. A ritual requires intention, attention, and engagement. It's never automatic and succeeds better than a new habit. Click To Tweet
4. Find A Strong Cue
Research suggests most regular exercisers have a built-in specific mechanism to make them workout daily. Their exercise habit gets triggered by a particular cue. Dr. Alison Phillips, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, and her team call this an “instigation habit.”
“This study shows that you don’t have to be afraid of trying new things. You can have an instigation habit and try new types of exercise without worrying about losing the habit,” says Alison Phillips.
If we plug into our favorite workout-music the first thing on getting up in the morning, this would make us leave the house to go to the park or the gym without any great deal of thought.
For people who already have cues to exercise, details are not something they spend too much of their time on. They do not deliberate on the upsides of exercising on a gloomy day. Rather, it is like a pre-programmed decision that sets off instantaneously because of the cue.
The stronger the instigation or cue, the greater the chances you will get back to your workout day after day. Researchers found the sole factor that accurately hinted how good you are going to be at exercising regularly over the long-term was how strong your instigation habit was.
5. Begin With Micro-Workouts
Focus on one small piece of the entire act. Take one bite of the whole pie.
Start with a bite-sized goal. It works like this. If you have the ultimate goal of half-hour sprints a day, you begin by going to the park and spending barely 5 minutes taking a walk. That’s all.
Now, if 5 minutes seem too long, make it a 2-minute walk in the park. Begin there. And keep doing those 2-minute walks every day till you get convinced it would not hurt too much to increase it to 3 minutes.
Make it so much of a mini-workout (or even a micro-workout), so you can’t wimp out.
Remember, building the exercise habit is never an all-or-nothing process.
Martin Gibala, a kinesiologist at McMaster University, devised a micro-workout with three 20-second rounds of an exhausting exercise routine, with intermittent 3-minute recoveries (called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT), against the typical 50-minutes-at-a-time approach, to compare the health benefits.
Both the workout routines produced similar results in improving heart function and blood-sugar levels. “If you’re willing and able to push hard, you can get away with surprisingly little exercise,” Gibala said.
According to muscle physiology researcher Dr. Keith Baar, HIIT should be done early in the day, followed by a recovery period of at least 3 hours. If you’re further interested in interval training, check this out: Really, Really Short Workouts.
There’s another way of looking at it. We call it adaptation. Adaptation is the evolutionary process by which a living thing becomes better able to live in its habitat.
10 Proven Tips To Make Exercise A Daily Habit
Summary of the 10 evidence-based tips to help you create an exercise habit:
- Commit to yourself in writing
- Get a workout buddy
- Set towards-goals
- Plan ahead of time
- Start small and slow
- Choose high-energy times
- Find the path of least resistance
- Fill in occasional breaks
- Change patterns
- Log your achievements
These are the best practical ideas that actually help. Even if you were to follow a few of them, you would be miles ahead of others in the game.
1. Commit To Yourself In Writing
The issue for most of us is not that we can not exercise; we can. The real problem is making exercise a well-ingrained daily habit so we get long-term health benefits. So, how do you fight this mental barrier?
Making a commitment to yourself in writing helps almost like magic. Psychology professor Gail Matthews studied successful goal-setting in 267 people. She found you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down, share it with a friend, and hold yourself accountable by sending them weekly updates.
2. Get A Workout Buddy Or Join A Fitness Group
Now, this simple hack can make your workout habit sticky. When you go for an exercise with a partner or a group, you can not devise a new excuse every day to skip your routine.
In a study of 117 adults, those who worked out with friends enjoyed the exercise more than those who did it by themselves. Group walks in nature can reduce depression, as well as be an excellent stress-busting routine.
3. Set ‘Towards-Goals’
Great goals are ‘towards’ oriented, rather than ‘away-from’ oriented. We call these approach goals (as “I will eat a cheese-lettuce-olives salad today.”). The opposite type comes under avoidance goals (as “I won’t eat any ice-cream today.”).
Your goals could be in the lines of reaching 115 pounds — not losing 20 pounds. Target increasing stamina; not decreasing tiredness. Aim for looking more youthful; not appearing less haggard. Tell yourself you are going to get fitter; not trying to be less sedentary.
How to set goals? Check out these 3 Highly Effective Goal-Setting Techniques.
4. Plan & Decide Ahead Of Time
We took that phrase from computer science – AOT, meaning Ahead Of Time. If interested, find out more on how AOT produces machine-optimized code.
The idea is to keep your plans ready ahead of time — duration, types, mix, and a variety of activities. When you plan your workouts ahead of time, you are better focused and motivated to go at it.
Since you do not plan out the best activities to match the weather and your mood that day, you are already doing it before the minutes tick away.
5. Start Small & Slow
Even if it is just 5 minutes a day of leisurely walk. If you cannot find long chunks of time in your day to exercise, find 3-5 minute slabs several times during the day. These multiple small bouts add up without overburdening you, and you’re more able to continue your exercise routine.
Find a guy who cannot find 3 slices of one minute each to exercise on their packed day, and you will have found the laziest dodo on earth.
6. Choose High-Energy Times
For most, this is morning. However, this is more of an individual thing. So, find out your chipper periods.
A little caution: according to science, your odds of working out are at its greatest when you’re in a neutral — neither happy nor sad — mood. So, don’t fix exercise times when you’ll probably be bouncing with euphoria. Nor try to exercise yourself out of your blues.
7. Find The Path of Least Resistance
Try to find your way into your daily exercise routine through a path of least effort.
For example, make the route between waking up on your bed and jogging out in the park the shortest. If you set up a few responsibilities in between, as checking your smartphone, then you have a good chance of missing the workout.
If you’ve to go through the decisions of how to match your workout gear to the weather and mood of the day, then you’re likely setting yourself up for decision fatigue and watch the minutes tick away. Instead, for example, go to bed dressed in your jogging or gym wear.
8. Fill In Occasional Breaks
Include breaks, intended or unintended, as part of your ritual. There will be days when even the most conscientious exercisers among us will find a reason to skip a day or two.
Now, the most important thing to do is not to link up these occasional breaks with shame and guilt. Don’t feel you’ve failed yourself. Simply forgive yourself and restart as usual.
Better still, fill in a few gaps into your exercise schedules, as a day off in a week or ten days. Mark on your calendar the no-exercise days ahead of time.
9. Change Patterns
If the same regular set of exercises makes you feel bad, then change the pattern. Try these against each other:
- indoors versus outdoors
- aerobics versus anaerobic
- light versus strenuous
- weights versus freehand
- vigorous versus slow
- yoga versus dance
There’s a song by King Prawn called Lick of the Flame which has these lines:
Mundane monotony is all you have to offer me.
Don’t let your exercise routine sing that to you. Break up the monotony with a change of patterns. A handy tip: music can give you a greater amount of mood-boost during cardio routines.
10. Log Your Achievements
Write them into a diary or store them digitally for review from time to time. You could use Evernote for this.
William Arruda, the author of Digital You, says it in three simple words in his Forbes post The One Thing Successful People Do Every Day:
Document your wins.
Infographic: 10 Tips To Exercise Habit
7 Easiest Hacks To Make Exercise An Unbreakable Habit
- Exercise first thing in the morning, before your energy levels lower and willpower depletes. Find an exercise buddy who is actively into a healthy routine – you will both motivate each other.
- Do an exercise you have fun doing, as dancing. Buy some good-looking exercise wear that makes you feel great. An outdoor exercise routine makes you feel more refreshed and less tensed than indoor activities. Also, a moderate-intensity workout has the best benefits, better than high or low intensity.
- When you do not feel like it, tell yourself you will do it for only 2 minutes. Some exercise is better than none at all. So, do any physical activity to add positive value to your health.
- Do not let yourself do an activity you have been doing all your life — such as brushing your teeth — unless you have had your morning exercise. Piggy-back your exercise routine to another daily habit, like an alarm to remind you 15 minutes before having your breakfast.
- Keep it simple, like getting out of bed and finding all your workout gear ready at hand. The night before, remember to keep your exercise gear ready at hand – shoes, clothes, cycle.
- Sleep and wake up with a positive affirmation about exercising daily. Remind yourself, daily exercise is the best means available to us today for delaying and preventing the effects of aging.
- Stick notes all over — on the fridge door, bathroom mirror — and tell everyone at home to push you. Take pictures of yourself exercising, and post them on your social media.
Why Is It Difficult To Make Exercise A Daily Habit
At least three institutes — NHLBI, ACSM, and CDC — recommend we aim for a moderate-intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day on at least five days a week.* They also say every adult should treat this 30 min x 5 days guideline as their long-term exercise goal.
You are bad at breaking an old pattern and exceptionally worse at creating a new habit.
Of course, we are all as good as anyone else on this one. We could do a hundred challenging things in a day, like repeating from memory the year-wise holiday destinations of all our Facebook friends we envy to hell. And yet not start an exercise habit!
Scientists have been telling us for decades: Regular physical activity, aerobic or anaerobic, can produce long-term health benefits. We believe their words. But we do not follow them.
Okay, all of us do not have this problem. Some find it ridiculously easy to take up a new habit or break a bad one. Ask a chronic smoker, and they will tell you how simple it is to stop their smoking habit. They have done it so many times they are an expert at it.
On a serious note, why do most of our new habits fail in time, without fail? And it’s often sooner than later. After the first kick of motivation, discipline goes for a toss. And in less than no time, you end up where you started – at point zero.
We usually have a fair knowledge of what’s useful for us, for most things in life. However, the problem seems to be this: a fact does not get us to enact.
You might be the most informed person in your social circle, and phenomenal at advising everyone about the positive effects of exercise. But you still might not be doing it yourself.
The truth is, you don’t like to exercise. That is the actual cause at the bottom.
Perhaps it’s one of our human failings that information does not guarantee execution. You always find it hard to follow your advice, though you freely hand out many to others.
Sometimes, our goals are too ambitious, but we won’t admit it. Setting audacious goals makes us feel powerful. As a famous life-coach told you in a hall full of thousand raving fans: “You absolutely must not sell yourself short.”
It’s another one of our human flaws. We are not good at predicting our future selves.
We don’t tally it in how many parts of our lives we have to change to climb up to the magnificent goal of losing 50 pounds within 50 days of exercise.Information doesn't guarantee execution. So, we're great advisers, but poor doers. Click To Tweet
How Long Does It Take To Make Exercise A Sticky Habit
We wish this had a simple and straightforward answer. It could have helped us stick to a good habit forever once we have done the activity for that magic number of days.
Many researchers have dived in deep to answer this once and for all. Unfortunately, they haven’t reached a consensus yet.
Experts differ fantastically — 21 days to 66 days. You may be puzzled at how widely they disagree on the optimum time frame. Read what some of them have to say on how long it takes to make any new activity as exercising a regular habit:
• 21 Days
Maxwell Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon in the America of 1950s, laid it for generations of self-help experts 6 weeks or 21 days is the magic number for any new habit.
In his bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics, he wrote, “… many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
• 49 Days
Ryan Brooks, developer of the habit & goal tracker app 7 Weeks, has this to say:
Scientists believe the sweet spot for developing a habit is right around 7 weeks. So, once you have completed 49 days straight with little slip-ups, you can be sure to have developed a positive habit, or broken a bad habit.
• 66 Days
Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, carried out a study in 2009 that said it takes a little more than 2 months or 66 days for a new habit to take root.
Did we mention, this number is not an exact, but an average of 18 to 254 days?
Ryan reached his magic number by combining information from two sources — Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and the X Effect Method of Completing Goals.
Exercise is beneficial for you, whatever your age, sex, or physical condition. It boosts your mood and energy, fights back a horde of diseases, and even increases your life.
In 2012, the National Cancer Consortium in America measured the effect of exercise on overall health. They found that if you walk at least 75 minutes a week, you can add up to one and a half years to your life.
Exercise is perhaps the most effective way of increasing the quality and quantity of life, as research after research show. Exercise makes you not only healthier, but happier too.
We would be incredibly thankful if this painstakingly written post finds success in helping you start and stick to a daily exercise habit.
• Did you know people who exercise are happier in their lives? Click the pic below to check out the Science of Exercise and Happiness:
* NHLBI = National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; ACSM = American College of Sports Medicine; CDC = Center For Disease Control
EBook (PDF) here: How To Make Exercise A Daily Habit
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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