4 ways to turn exercise into a habit

We all know exercise is great. It’s been shown to improve our mood, lengthen life expectancy, and boost our immune systems. Yet somehow, even when we’re well-rested and well-intentioned, we can find ourselves lacking the motivation to work out. The CDC reports that in 2018 only about half of US adults met the Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic physical activity. If knowing the benefits doesn’t motivate us, what can?

First, let’s break down some of the barriers to motivation.

“I’m too busy.”

If you’re too busy to care about your health, it may be time to make some adjustments. Time constraints happen to all of us: we’re working too hard, we’re juggling too many priorities, we’re caretaking for others, and we’ve left no time to “caretake” ourselves. If there’s no time for you in your schedule, sit down with a creative and supportive friend or family member to examine where your time goes. After all, exercise doesn’t need to be a 2-hour sweat-fest at the gym. It can be a simple bodyweight circuit workout done while dinner’s in the oven or your favorite show is on. 

“Gym memberships are too expensive.”

The great thing about gym memberships is that you actually don’t need one. There are thousands of at-home workouts that can be accomplished with little to no equipment. There are custom workouts for hotel rooms, offices, parks — you name it. It might seem like a gym would make things easier, but it may be even easier to just work out at home. Try doing jumping jacks between calls, a set of squats every time you use the restroom, or just a few trips up and down the stairs when you finish up with work. 

“I’ve tried and I can’t make it stick.”

This is a big demotivator. When we don’t accomplish a goal, it can be hard to try again. But with a few simple strategies, you’ll be better able to make an exercise habit stick.

How to make an exercise habit stick

1. Plan it. 

This might seem silly, but scheduling in the time to workout, even if it’s just ten minutes, can be one of the keys to accomplishing your exercise goals. By planning your exercise, you are establishing a cue. In Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit, one of the essential components he describes for habit building is having an established cue. Your brain needs to think, “ah yes, it’s time to workout.” Here are some examples:

  • Scheduling workouts on your calendar or in your planner
  • Laying out workout clothes or workout equipment the night before
  • Making plans to workout with a friend

Of course establishing a positive cue also means investigating your negative cues. What distracts you from working out? What are the temptations that change your plans? Knowing and addressing these issues can help you make a plan you can stick to.

2. Know what your workout is. 

Have you ever been frustrated by a meeting without an agenda? Or felt overwhelmed starting a project when there’s no clear outline? Agendas, outlines, and plans help things move efficiently, and the same can be done with a workout. While planning when you’ll work out, write down what the workout will be. Maybe that’s running one mile, maybe it’s a circuit of pushups, sit-ups, and lunges. But knowing in advance will help you follow through. 

And when you’re first getting started, don’t worry too much about creating the “perfect workout.” As long as you’re exercising, you’re establishing a habit. 

3. Do the right workout for you.

It’s very tempting to take advantage of motivation when it hits, but going too hard out of the gate is often a recipe for failure. You shouldn’t run six miles for your first run, and you shouldn’t lift weights for an hour your first time at the gym. That kind of ambition is likely to make you too sore to stick with it, and it increases your chance of injury. 

This self-restraint can be especially hard for former athletes, or anyone who once had an exercise routine and is looking to get back into it.

The best thing about starting easy is that you can always make it harder. Going for a walk, a short jog, a bike ride around the neighborhood, or doing bodyweight exercises at home are all great places to start. 

4. Pick a reward.

We’re not above self-bribery when it comes to working out. Rewards incentivize us to do all kinds of things. Planning a reward for exercise is a great way to make a habit stick, because over time, you’ll turn that craving for the reward into a craving for the habit itself.

Rewards are personal, but here are some examples to inspire you:

  • An episode of your favorite show
  • Taking a long bath
  • Buying your favorite magazine
  • Stashing cash after each workout and rewarding yourself at the end of the month

Building a reward into your workout routine, and keeping that reward exclusively for working out, can help establish the habit. You can also make the reward part of working out. So maybe it’s only during your workout that you listen to a certain audiobook or indulge in a reality TV show. Whatever works for your habit-making is great.