Have you ever struggled to make exercise a habit?
Maybe you stay on track for a few weeks or months and then fall off for a bit. Or, maybe you have never exercised consistently.
In this article, you will learn how to make exercise a habit. Follow these six steps, and you are guaranteed to succeed.
1. Be clear on your “why.”
The first step to make exercise a habit is to be clear on why it’s important to you. The stronger your “why,” the easier it will be to stay on track.
Let me share a quick personal story as an example. After my sophomore year in high school, I attended a summer basketball camp with my teammates. At the time, I was 5’10” and 119 pounds. One afternoon at camp, my teammates and I were hanging out in the sun. We were shirtless because of the heat.
One of my teammates looked at me and started to laugh. “Look at Leibman,” he said. “He’s so puny you can see his heart beating.” The entire team started cracking up. I tried to laugh it off, but it was a humiliating moment.
On the positive, that experience unleashed my motivation to get stronger. That day served as my “why” for the next few years. Through strength training and better eating habits, I added over 60 pounds of muscle by my sophomore year in college, while keeping my body fat percentage under 10%.
Over two decades later, my “why” for exercising is very different. These days, exercise is a top priority for me because of the following reasons:
- To delay the aging process and remain fit and athletic for as long as possible
- To be a healthy role model for other people
- To be happier, more focused, more productive, and more confident. (I’m always sharper mentally and in a better mood on days when I exercise.)
Your “why” could be completely different. Either way, you need to be clear on how will your life improve if you make exercise a habit.
There will be times when you will not be in the mood to work out. When that happens, remind yourself why you started in the first place. Where there is a
will why, there is a way.
2. Make exercise fun.
If you are not exercising consistently right now, it’s not because you are lazy, you lack willpower, or you don’t have enough time. It’s because your current concept of working out feels like a chore.
When you make exercise fun, it becomes much easier to “find” the time to work out. Here are some variables that you can change (daily, weekly, monthly, or seasonally) in order to make exercise fun:
- What you listen to: If you don’t like exercising in silence, you could listen to music or to an interesting podcast or book on tape.
- Where you exercise: If you don’t like exercising at your local gym, you could exercise at home or at a track, trail, park, beach, or pool.
- Who you exercise with: If you do not enjoy exercising by yourself, you could work out with co-workers, friends, or family members.
- How you exercise: If you do not enjoy running, you could go for a bike ride, jump rope, play basketball, or take a dance class. If you do not enjoy strength training with barbells, you could use resistance bands, or your own body weight. If you are overwhelmed or uninterested in designing your own workout, you could hire a trainer, take a group fitness class, use a fitness app, or follow a home workout program.
There are so many ways to be active. Mix it up and exercise in ways that are enjoyable for you, and exercise will become a habit much more easily.
3. Start small and easy.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a global leader in sports medicine and exercise science, recommends every adult exercise at a moderate or high intensity for at least thirty minutes a day on five to six days each week. 1
However, that is not where you should start if you are a beginner, or if you are getting back into exercise after a long period of inactivity. Start small and easy with one of the following options for the first few weeks:
- Option 1: Schedule a 20-30 minute moderate intensity workout for 1-2 days per week, and schedule a 20-30 minute low-intensity workout (i.e. walking) on 4-5 other days.
- Option 2: Schedule a 20-30 minute moderate intensity workout for 1-2 days per week, and don’t schedule anything officially for the other days.
You might prefer scheduling more exercise sessions each week (Option 1), since exercise becomes a habit faster when you do it all/most days. If a daily exercise habit feels overwhelming though, focus on a smaller frequency first. Then, you can gradually increase the frequency and intensity of your workouts when you feel ready.
Start small and easy to build momentum and confidence. Beware of biting off more than you can chew. You don’t want to get overwhelmed (or injured) because you started with too much too soon.
4. Schedule your workouts strategically.
Each weekend, decide when (and where and how) you will exercise during the following week. Don’t leave your workouts to chance and hope that you will “find” time during the week. You are much more likely to follow-through when you commit in advance, especially if you also commit to another person, such as a friend, family member, or personal trainer.
Choose the time(s) for your workouts when you are least likely to have a personal or professional conflict. For many people, that will be early in the morning.
As Jennifer Carr-Smith, a former SVP at Groupon, told me in an interview for my book Work Stronger, “If I don’t exercise in the morning, it doesn’t happen later on.” This sentiment is common, especially when you are juggling a demanding career and a family, like Jennifer is as an executive, a wife, and a mother of three children.
Whatever time(s) you decide on, hook your exercise habit onto another activity. For example, you could exercise right after you wake up, right before you eat lunch, right after you leave work, right after you get home from work, or right before you eat dinner.
Be careful about exercising late in the day though. The later that you plan to exercise, the more likely you will run into a conflict or lose motivation to follow-through.
Note: You can click here for four tips on how to exercise before work, even if you’re not a “morning person.”
5. Get some social support and accountability.
If you want to form an exercise habit (or any other habit), don’t try to do it by yourself. Any change is easier with support, encouragement, and accountability from other people. Look for ways to surround yourself with some people who have already made exercise into a habit.
Good habits are contagious, just like bad habits are. As Hoby Darling, a former GM at Nike and the former CEO at Skullcandy, told me in an interview for Work Stronger, “I’m a big believer in the saying that you become the sum of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Join a workout group, hire a top-notch personal trainer (some are much better than others), or ask a fit friend or family member for help. No matter where you live and where you are on your fitness journey, there are plenty of groups and people who can support you.
6. Track yourself.
You are also much more likely to make exercise a habit when you track yourself somehow. This concept came up repeatedly during my interviews with high performers for Work Stronger.
For example, Juan Uro, a former EVP at the NBA, told me that he has been tracking pace and distance for all of his runs for over fifteen years. “Accountability can be as simple as winning against your own targets,” he said.
If you are old-school (like me), you could track your workouts in a basic spreadsheet. Mine is not fancy. Each weekend, I update an excel document with my total number of workouts from the prior week, along with some other basic metrics that matter to me.
I started tracking my workouts in 2014. Over the next seven years, I exercised at least 293 times every single year, and each workout was for at least 30 minutes, with most lasting 45-60 minutes:
- 2020: 322 total workouts
- 2019: 295 total workouts
- 2018: 325 total workouts
- 2017: 301 total workouts
- 2016: 321 total workouts
- 2015: 293 total workouts
- 2014: 338 total workouts
There is no way that I would have been this consistent if I didn’t track myself (and follow the other tips in this article).
If you want to be more scientific about tracking, you can also use technology to monitor your exercise habits. For example, you could wear a fitness tracker like WHOOP. You could also use a fitness tracking service like Strava, which is especially popular for running and cycling.
The key message is to track something. Keep it simple at the beginning. As Darren Hardy, former publisher of SUCCESS Magazine, writes in his book titled The Compound Effect, “All winners are trackers.”
Common Mistakes to Avoid
If you are struggling to make exercise a habit, it’s not because you are lazy, you lack willpower, or you don’t have enough time. It’s because your strategy is flawed, and you are making one of the following mistakes:
- Not having a strong, clear “why” for exercise
- Forcing yourself to do exercise that is very tedious or painful for you
- Taking on too much too soon
- Working out at random times or times when you are more likely to have a conflict
- Not having enough social support or accountability
- Not tracking yourself somehow
The good news is that all of these mistakes are easy to fix.
You are guaranteed to make exercise a habit when you follow the six steps recommended in this article:
- Be clear on your “why.”
- Make exercise fun.
- Start small and easy.
- Schedule your workouts strategically.
- Get some social support and accountability.
- Track yourself.
Exercise is one of the best habits that you can form.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the Creator of StrongerHabits.com. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and executive recruiter, and his work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com. His latest book is titled Work Stronger: Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work.
References for this article
- “ACSM Issues New Recommendations on Quantity and Quality of Exercise,” ACSM, http://www.acsm.org/about-acsm/media-room/news-releases/2011/08/01/acsm-issues-new-recommendations-on-quantity-and-quality-of-exercise.