How to Make Exercise a Habit and Why Do We Fail?

When we decide to make exercise a priority in our lives, most of us make grand plans to be in the gym at 6 am, or pounding the streets in our running shoes for at least an hour a day. While we might begin with the best intentions, we often fail. But why is that? And, how can we ingrain exercise habits that are manageable and sustainable in the long term? Let’s find out.

Key takeaways:

What is an exercise habit?

An exercise habit is when you regularly engage in physical exercise, and it doesn’t feel forced or like you have to drag yourself to the gym. It's the transition from the goal of exercising regularly to the action of the exercise itself. Once your exercise becomes habitual, it should start to feel pleasurable — and you might even notice yourself getting antsy when you miss a day or two.

The science of habits

Before delving into how to set yourself up for creating a new exercise habit, it’s important to know a little bit about the science of habit formation.

Humans are creatures of habit. We have usual behaviors and a tendency to do certain things a certain way. Habits help us perform daily routines and activities — forming through repetition and becoming so ingrained we barely even have to think about what we are doing. This frees up valuable thinking space in our brains to work on other things. You probably have routine habits for all kinds of activities, such as:

  • How you get ready in the morning
  • How and when you walk your dog
  • What you do first when you get to work
  • How you wash your hair
  • How you get dressed
  • How you clean your home

Performing these tasks requires habit formation. And we formed those habits without much fuss or attention, right? So, when it comes to new exercise habit formation, why do we think it’s going to be so hard?

The secret is out — forming new exercise habits isn’t that difficult. It doesn't take 100 days. There are a few simple tricks and hacks you can do that make your habits easy to form and relatively easy to change.

Creating a new exercise habit

The first pitfall people come to when creating a new exercise habit is going too big too soon. We might have the intention to go to a HIIT class 5 times a week or run 5k every day, but after those first two weeks our bodies are exhausted and we give up.

There are a few tricks that can make a new exercise habit stick — avoiding all those negative feelings that are inevitable when you fail to hit your targets.

Commit to one month

Create a non-negotiable deal with yourself that you will follow your exercise plan for one month. It’s only four short weeks and feels much more manageable than doing a 90-day stint on the treadmill.

Reward bundles

If your guilty pleasure is watching trash TV, or even if you love art house films — bundle them together with exercise and make it, so you can only watch when you are exercising. You can set an episode up on your tablet while you are at the gym, or watch at home on a stationary exercise bike. The choice is yours.

Set reasonable goals

If you have been out of action for a while, don’t start with an hour a day. Give your body time to acclimatize. Try setting a goal of 15 minutes for the first two weeks, then up it to 30 minutes for the next two.

Pick exercises you enjoy

Try a variety of different exercises. You can join a class at your local gym, find a yoga school, or go hiking or trail running. Water aerobics is great if you are less mobile, and swimming is excellent if you want something that’s low-impact but still burns those calories. Variety is the spice of life — don’t do the same exercise every day. You run the risk of getting bored and giving up.

Make it sociable and fun

If you’ve tried creating an exercise habit and failed, then exercising in a group setting might be a good option. When we make arrangements to exercise with a friend or group, we are less likely to cancel them than if we’ve just made an agreement with ourselves. Try joining a walking or running club, or schedule exercise with a friend.

Trick yourself

The hardest part of any exercise is getting started. You can trick yourself into doing exercise by telling yourself that you are just going to get your yoga mat out, or that you are just putting your running shoes on. Once the mat is out or the shoes are on, it will feel so much easier to do a quick 15-minute stretch, or head out the door and jog around the block.

When does exercise become a habit?

You can form a new habit pretty quickly. If you commit to just a month or two, you’ll start to see the habit-forming nicely. Once it doesn't feel so hard or strange to get up and go to the gym or take a jog in the park, you’ll know the new exercise habit is becoming more ingrained. Your body will appreciate the physical activity and if you miss a few days, you’ll notice that you don't feel quite as energized or vibrant.

Why we fail

After we’ve had some feeling of success with our new habit — for example, if we’ve exercised 4 times a week for the last month — the temptation to take our foot off the gas creeps in. Even if you feel yourself starting to give up, just scale it back and tell yourself you only have to do 10 minutes of daily exercise for the rest of the week.

We also have a tendency to give up if we don’t see drastic results in a matter of minutes. However, you have to be realistic. You aren’t going to get a snatched waistline in two weeks or be able to run a marathon after a few jogs in the local park. And, that's okay. It takes time to build strength, flexibility, and endurance.

How we succeed

Here are a few steps to consider if you want to successfully form a habit:

  • Make a plan. We need to make a robust plan. If you wake up without knowing what exercise you are going to do that day, it’s much more likely that you won’t do it. Plan your next week of exercise on a Sunday evening. Get your diary out and schedule your exercise time in. Remember to start slowly, take a 15-minute jog one day, try an online yoga class the next, and so on.
  • Track your results. If your goal is to lose a few pounds. Take a picture of yourself at two-week intervals. Don’t look at them until you’ve done 30–60 days of your new exercise habit. You’ll be surprised at the difference from day 1 to day 60. Sometimes a visual indication of our progress can be a great motivator.

You can also track how much weight you could lift at the beginning, or how many miles you could walk, and compare that to what you can do after 30–60 days. If you want to exercise for the positive mood-enhancing effects — try journaling how you feel, just a few sentences each day, and remind yourself of how far you’ve come.

What are the best exercise habits?

It's not just the exercise habit itself, but the habits that surround it that are crucial to success. Here are a few key factors that can help develop the best exercise habits.

  • No negotiation. We are so good at self-negotiation. We bargain with ourselves that taking one day off is okay, that we will exercise twice tomorrow. Just don’t do that — show up, even if you jog on the spot or do jumping jacks for five minutes.
  • Flexibility. Life happens. We won’t always be able to have that sunset run, or make it to our favorite yoga class. When something comes up, don't get derailed, just bend around it. Take an online yoga, Pilates or HIIT class instead, or follow your favorite TV workout routine.
  • Variation. In order for us to look forward to doing something, we need to spice it up. If you are bored by jogging, take yourself swimming. If you are bored by swimming, try resistance training.
  • Sustainability. Don’t go too hard too soon. Create manageable chunks of time in which you exercise. It’s okay to start with three times a week — there’s no law that states you have to be on the treadmill 24/7.
  • Motivation. You have to give up the notion that you will feel motivated before every exercise session. You won’t. Pro athletes don’t always feel like getting up to train, but they do it because they know and trust the benefits.

The formation of robust exercise habits requires a lifestyle change. When you know the science behind habit formation, you can create tricks and hacks that ensure your success. Once you’ve been exercising regularly for a few weeks, you’ll feel the difference in your mind, body, and spirit, and that will be your motivation to keep going.

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