Learning how to make exercise a habit can be life-changing. Exercise comes with a ton of health benefits including being good for the heart, bones, and muscles, and even helping improve sleep.
The first step is to always learn to build the habit of exercise, and then you can always work to improve it even further. But that first step is usually really difficult for most people.
Luckily, I have decades of experience due to the fact that my exercise routine is consistent and it’s been a part of my life for an incredibly long time. But explaining what steps I’ve taken to get to this point has always been tricky.
I believe may have stumbled upon the answer while listening to The Power of Habit (while running, of course).
So, this article will lay down all the tips and tricks you can use to set yourself up for long-term success when learning how to make exercise a habit.
13 Ways to Effectively Learn to Make Exercise a Habit
And so, dear readers, I can finally share with you my knowledge about how to create an exercise habit.
It’s so much easier than we want to think.
But I’m going to give you the tools that have kept me running consistently since 2002 through many cross-country moves, job changes, and life changes.
1. Create a Daily Habit
Repetition is more important than the time frame to create a habit, which is why I say start small with mini habits!
Pick just one new habit to start.
The important thing is to keep your routine going by doing something every day, ideally something that gets you moving and helps maintain the momentum of your habit formation.
A lot of people fail when they set out to create a new exercise habit because they only try to go to the gym three or four days per week. Consistency is essential if you want to make a habit stick, which is why we want to show up at the same time every day for ourselves.
This is one reason that I LOVE active recovery days, instead of complete rest. It allows you to maintain the habit, while still getting in the necessary rest between runs.
2. Commit to One Month
Most of us have heard the statement that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. While there is more to it than that (more on that below), the key here is getting over that initial hump of starting out.
When you start off with building a habit to exercise, commit to one month to help you build a daily routine.
Moreover, it’s easy to think in terms of one-month increments. This way it doesn’t seem so daunting or permanent, leaving you feeling stuck with a dreaded goal you must accomplish every day for the rest of your life.
One month is temporary.
See how you did by the end of the month and make adjustments as necessary to keep you going long-term.
And always remember that there’s no magic number of days that’ll take to build a new habit. Repetition is key to making exercise a habit.
Motivation can fade over time, but if you utilize that high motivation in the beginning and get repetition going simultaneously, you’re highly likely to see a lasting behavior change.
3. Set a Consistent Time
The other crucial element is picking a time that works for you on a daily basis. This is one reason so many runners turn to mornings, fewer excuses:
- You have to stay at work late
- Your partner can’t pick up the kids, so you have to
- You’re too tired from a long day
- Friends invite you to an impromptu happy hour
It’s easy to make or create an excuse to skip a run in the evening. The morning, however, you can shape however you like.
Yes, waking up earlier isn’t easy, but you can take steps to make it more convenient, by setting the coffee timer or making overnight oats. Set your phone on the other side of the room, so you have to get up to turn off the alarm.
Get the full list of morning runner tips and motivation to wake up early!
4. Think Small
When you’re starting to work out and exercise, the best make to turn it into a habit is to make it so easy that you can do it even when you’re running low on willpower.
This means you need to think small initially and start with something so easy that you can’t say no to it.
For instance, if you want to start running, rather than setting a goal to run a marathon in six months if you’ve never run 5k before, consider starting out with that since you’ll know it’s something you can easily accomplish.
Focus on the process rather than the goal. Let’s break this down into more examples:
- Start out by committing to one day of running per week for 20 minutes, or even just 10-15 minutes if that’s all you can handle. Checkout the Couch to 5K plan for a good starting point.
- Then increase to two days, adding slowly until your body adjusts to the new routine.
- As the habit begins to settle and running feels easier, you can start to increase your duration.
- Eventually, add additional elements like strength training.
Wait, didn’t I just tell you that in order to create a new habit, you have to commit to it daily?
Yes, let me explain. As you’re starting out, run one day per week and walk the rest. Then, run for two days and walk for five.
The idea is to pick a goal that you simply cannot fail at because it’s that easy. See my handy dandy tips if you need help finding ways to create time to work out.
5. Set a Trigger Cue
Most of your life is a set of habits, you just didn’t realize that’s what they are! A few of the most common ones:
- You brush your teeth right after you wake up and just before you go to bed.
- You start the coffee pot after brushing your teeth.
- You put your seatbelt in as soon as you get in your car.
Charles Duhigg, brilliantly tells us that we should piggyback on our existing habits to trigger a new one. Instead of starting from scratch, we’re taking advantage of something our brain is already doing unconsciously to implement something new.
Another way to look at it is that these are what we call the ‘if and then’ plan.
So, to do this link a specific cue (if) with a specific response (then). Your cue should be something that you do regardless of what else is going on with your life (e.g. brushing your teeth, having coffee in the morning), or could even be something as simple as the time of the day.
This will increase the likelihood of making exercise a habit. Here are some examples:
- Brush your teeth in the evening then set your shoes in the bathroom so you see them as soon as you get up
- Start your pot of coffee and then get dressed for running
- Do a short yoga workout before lunchtime at 12:00 PM
- Do your strength training exercises while you watch TV in the evening
6. Use Positive Reinforcement
Everything about habits seems so clinical, let’s talk about one that sounds exactly like running motivation!
Combining a guilty pleasure with a healthy habit may encourage you to stick with your new habit. Watching Real Housewives is absolutely how I handle long winter treadmill runs.
Rewards can be anything from a Starbucks coffee on days you run, to only listening to your favorite podcast only during a run, or watching your favorite show on Netflix after that evening run.
Or maybe you want to go on a trip, so consider paying yourself for running. Each run earns you $5 toward that trip.
I generally try not to use “treats” as a reward, but if you drink coffee anyway and this will get you started with the habit, then go for it. Over time, you’ll hopefully begin to find the run itself is the reward!
With continued repetition, your brain will begin to associate the feeling after you finish running as a reward and you’ll start feeling motivated to work out before you lace up. This is how habits work. They create a pathway in your brain that makes things automatic because of your expectations.
Love this photo from RunTriTam which shows multiple tips in one!! They save these treats for after long runs and enjoy the miles more together.
7. Find a Workout Buddy
If you have a friend waiting for you outside in the dark and cold, then it’s highly likely that you’ll stick with your running habit, because you can’t be the jerk that makes her suck it up alone.
- Set a weekly running date with several friends to help keep the motivation and fun high
- Join arunning club, which will have set times for group workouts and push you to try speed workouts or just be comfortable in a group.
- Hire a personal trainer to help you gain confidence in the gym and not talk yourself out of strength training.
- Hire a running coach who will provide you with accountability and spending money on your goal reinforces to your brain that this matters and you want to stick to it.
8. Set Yourself Up for Success
Don’t just join a gym only to step inside and feel overwhelmed by all the equipment and people. Or pick out a race then try to wing the training.
Doing a little bit of preparation will boost your running or workout motivation by turning it into a habit that you do without even thinking.
This is all about setting yourself up for success by taking one simple action that can put you in the mindset of exercising.
For instance, writing down your workout plan and putting it next to the bed so that’s the first thing you see in the morning can be a great way to do this.
Here are a few other ways to prepare for an exercise habit:
- Make a Pinterest board of exercise routines to have ready when you go to the gym.
- Have your running route for the following day picked out. Map My Run or Strava are great ways to find new routes in your area.
- Set out your running clothes the night before so all you have to do is get dressed.
- Have your lunch and/or breakfast ready to go the next day. This way, you won’t have to think about it before you head out the door.
- Pick a podcast or playlist the night before you run so all you have to do is hit play.
9. Reduce Obstacles
And it’s not just about setting yourself up for success but doing all the things I’ve mentioned above can also lead to fewer obstacles and less friction when it comes to forming your new habit.
The less friction there is, the higher the chances of success.
So, if in the morning, not only do you have to wake up early but you also have to get a bunch of gear ready while you’re half asleep, you’ll more likely than not want to just jump back into bed!
By setting out your workout clothes in the morning, you’ll be ready to go out for your run without any friction at all.
Notice things that are causing friction in the first month of establishing a new habit and find tiny ways to eliminate those frictions and obstacles.
10. Check Your Expectations
Remember that you didn’t go out of shape overnight, and in the same way you won’t be able to transform your body instantly overnight.
Don’t expect too much too soon as this will lead to frustration and you might end up quitting only a few weeks before seeing lasting change happen.
Regardless of your fitness goals, you can achieve them with the correct plan and with consistency. You may not see physical transformation overnight but fortunately, you’ll see improvements in mood and energy fairly quickly, and at the beginning that’s all we need to keep going.
11. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
While you’re on the journey of making exercise a habit life can happen, and you may accidentally skip a day here or there. Learn to not be so hard on yourself.
If your busy schedule got the best of you, it’s okay.
Often, it’s not the excitement of building a new workout habit that drives us, but the fear that we will go back to our old habits.
And so, if we miss out on one workout or eat a bit more than usual during the holidays or do anything else that ‘violates’ the terms we set out to build our new habits, we tend to feel overly disappointed.
Learn to forgive yourself and keep going when that happens, because it’s not what happened in the past that matters, but what happens next.
12. Keep Things Interesting
When wanting to learn to make exercise a habit, change things up from time to time if your current workout routine feels monotonous.
That’s why I love running, because in order to be a good runner you have to not just concentrate on running (duh!), but also build strength through strength training, and utilize other ways of working out such as biking, swimming, yoga, and cardio.
This makes things fun and keeps them exciting. You’re more likely to do something when you enjoy it, so do whatever it is that makes you feel happy and interested in working out.
See some of the best cross training workouts for runners >>
13. Build Habits Your Own Way
And for the last point, I wanted to really focus on something that tends to cause a lot of problems for people who are just starting off with learning to create a solid workout habit. That is, don’t be afraid to do things your own way.
There is no one way to go about developing a workout habit. What worked for me may not work for you, and vice versa.
We frequently look outside of ourselves to learn what has worked for high achievers when beginning a change process.
Although studying the routines and ‘secret habits’ of professional athletes and your peers can provide some motivation, their methods won’t always work for you. And that’s perfectly fine, all you have to do is take baby steps to get there.
Go through this article a couple of times to find the tips and tricks that you can easily incorporate into your life, and then watch as you make exercise a habit in a way that truly lasts!
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