How to Make Exercise a Habit

How are you doing with making a habit of doing your physical therapy exercises, or committing to a fitness routine? If you’re ready to make exercise part of your routine, skip the resolutions and go straight to taking steps to create an exercise habit. Committing to exercise is worthwhile because it’s a great way to decrease pain, reverse or avoid sedentary diseases, and benefit your mental health. Read on to learn practical steps that will get you into the habit of exercising consistently.

Find Your Why

contemplate and write down why you want to create an exercise habit
Contemplate and write down what is motivating you to create an exercise habit.

To begin with, any time you are about to make a shift in your lifestyle, it’s good to reflect on why you want to make the change. People are driven by different things. Some want to exercise to decrease or manage their weight. Others exercise to feel energized, strong, and injury-free while they participate in their sport of choice. But for some, the most compelling motivator is the desire to manage or improve their health.

What is motivating you? Write it down so that you can remind yourself on days when your energy levels are lower.

Just Show Up

Instigation is key to habit formation
Plan to just show up to the trailhead (or gym, or studio) and the rest will follow.

In the world of habit science, instigation is more important than execution. Instigation means showing up consistently, and execution is performing the exercise. People who are better at showing up for exercise, have more long-term success at forming an exercise habit than those who focus on what they plan to do for exercise. This is because instigation is the automatic part of habit formation. Execution requires more complex thinking and planning. In other words, if you never arrive at the gym, studio or trailhead, you aren’t going to do that amazing workout that you hoped to do.

Ways to use instigation to help you form your exercise habit:

  • Write it in your planner: draw a checkbox next to it. Then, check the box after you’ve completed the exercise. Or, put an X in the checkbox if you didn’t get to it that day. If you’re a list person (like me) – you’ll feel super motivated to check that box rather than put an X in it.
  • Sign up for a group class, then put it on your calendar and show up to the class
  • Show up at the gym at the same time every day or the same day(s) each week
  • Arrange exercise ahead of time with a friend – this works great for outdoor activities like biking, hiking, skiing and walking.

Set Up Cues

Set up equipment ahead of time to cue you to make exercise a habit
Setting up your exercise equipment ahead of time reminds you to follow through.

Exercise habits are susceptible to cues, which are triggers that can either get you moving or keep you stuck in the chair. Examples of cues can be setting up physical items that remind you to exercise or choosing a certain time of day to exercise. The key is setting up the same cues since repetition is the #1 habit builder. Try to do the same thing at the same time each day of the week so that the consistent schedule triggers your exercise habit.

Make it Social

Exercise with others to form a habit
Exercising alongside someone else is more motivating and fun.

If you are really struggling to find motivation to exercise, find yourself an exercise buddy, a group class, or a team to join that you love. When you know that others are doing the exercise alongside you, you are more likely to work out harder and longer. It also makes it more fun. There might even be some social comparison forces at play too, which in this case is a positive thing when forming your exercise habit.

Easy Access

Remove Friction

Set out your workout clothes the night before to remove friction.

Another effective habit-building tool is friction. Removing friction is the act of simply noticing and addressing any barriers to exercise. For example, if you plan to work out first thing in the morning, put your exercise clothes out the night before. Because if you have to be quiet while you root around in the dark for your clothes, that’s friction. And that little bit of trouble might delay or stand in the way of you getting your work-out. I’ve even heard of people sleeping in their exercise clothes when trying to make a morning exercise habit! Another practical example of removing friction is to join a gym or fitness studio closest to your home.

Add Friction

Add friction to build a habit.
Add friction by taking the stairs rather than the elevator or escalator.

You can also add friction to help you get into the habit of exercise. For example, take a long walk away from your house, so that you have no choice but to walk that same distance to get back home. Or, plan to always park your car as far away in the store parking lot as possible. This way you’ll always take a walk anytime you do errands. Another idea is to commit to taking the stairs rather than the elevator or escalator. You get some exercise and will have more time in the day to do other things.

Celebrate Yourself

Positive emotions are key to making habits stick
Positive emotions are key to making habits stick.

The final step to establishing a long-lasting exercise habit is celebration. Emotions create habits. First, follow the advice above to form your exercise habit. But make sure you are also making a habit of celebrating with a positive emotional experience when you’re done. This fun, sparkly gesture is what leads to permanent behavior change. When you celebrate and feel good in the moment, neurochemistry works like magic to re-wire your brain.

Think about a quick, enthusiastic expression of celebration immediately after exercise rather than planning to purchase or eat something as a reward. Making positive changes in your life is a really big deal. Take some time to play and get creative to find your own signature way to celebrate yourself to seal the deal on your new exercise habit.

Finding your signature way to celebrate; a few ideas:

  • Hum or sing your favorite champion tune
  • High-five, clap, pat yourself on the back, do a little jig
  • Shout out loud: Yippee! Great job! Woohoo! Superstar!
  • Imagine a crowd cheering for you

Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it each day, and at last we cannot break it.

~ Horace Mann


2021. The Complete Guide To Habits. Popular Science, Special Edition

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