We all know we should be exercising more, however, sometimes it can feel like a bit of a chore. Long days at work, having children and a general lack of energy might make working out the last thing on your mind. I’ve been there myself many, many times. However, there are a few simple things you can do to make working out a habit, one step at a time. After all, you don’t have to hit the gym or run around the block every evening for at least an hour.
Building an unbreakable habit is about small progression over time where ideally your ability level aligns with what you’re trying to do until you’re ready to take on more and more. This principle is especially important with exercise and working out. For example, if you go too heavy too early, you’re going to burn yourself out and give up or worse, you might injure yourself.
I remember buying my first set of dumbbells when I was 15. I used to love curling them in my bedroom every evening. Sure, my arms grew, but I didn’t really know what I was doing and I was lucky I didn’t injure myself. I didn’t have a plan. Over time, I’ve developed a workout routine that I enjoy and that makes me feel good. I’m not an elite athlete of course, however, I’ve reached a point where working out has become a habit, something many people are aiming for. I no longer dread it and instead look forward to it. However, it has taken time and patience.
So here’s how, in my experience, you can build a workout habit that lasts.
1. Identify your goal
The first thing you should do is identify what your goal is. What are you trying to achieve? Build more muscle? lose some fat? run for longer? Athletes train in very specific ways to increase their performance. Most of us work ‘normies’ out to lose weight or to look good. So, what is it you want?
Even if it’s to lose 5 pounds, make it your clear goal and write it down somewhere so you don’t forget it. Most of us start working out in the new year because we think we should. We know it’s a healthy thing to do but we have little direction or goal so we end up trying lots of different things. This only increases our chances of giving up when we see little or no progress.
For example, I used to work out really hard and consistently to try and lean down but my diet was awful. In reality, no amount of exercise was ever going to offset my diet. I was clueless, arrogantly thinking I could do it all myself without any kind of research.
You need to make your goal clear to yourself because there will be cold evenings when you don’t feel like putting on your running shoes or heading to the weight room. You’ll be tired and fed up with no motivation because the truth is everyone experiences days where they don’t feel like doing anything. Motivation comes and goes so discipline towards your goal is what is needed.
2. Be disciplined with yourself
Motivation is overrated, in my opinion. If you’ve ever tried to build a workout habit from the New Year onwards, you’ve no doubt experienced heightened levels of motivation you have at the beginning of the year. This usually comes from the excitement of planning what food you’re going to eat, the equipment you might buy and the new, slimmer, fit and healthy version of yourself you envision. However, that feeling usually fades rather quickly when the reality of what you need to do day in and day out sets in.
This is especially true for those who have little exercise experience. We’re all designed to seek comfort so keeping a workout routine throughout the week is going to probably feel very painful and difficult at first. After all, it’s easier to go home after work and put your feet up in front of the TV. However, you have to be disciplined with yourself if you’re going to build any kind of habit and this can be done by keeping your ‘why’ at the forefront of your mind.
Why did you set out to build a workout habit in the first place?
Why is keeping this habit over time going to improve your life?
Are you trying to make working out a habit so you can impress someone? Is it to make your clothes fit better? Is it to look good in a dress?
I don’t think you should start a habit for the sake of it. If you do this, you’ll give up before you’ve even started. Set a goal and keep it visible, stick it up on your wall or make it the background on your phone. Keep the discipline and keep going.
3. Find the perfect time
Like identifying a goal when it comes to working out, it’s also useful to identify the perfect or at least most realistic time you can workout. For example, if you work in the evenings, perhaps you can workout in the morning. How long do your workouts need to be? What exact time would be best for you? Setting a realistic time and place will help you to keep discipline because there will be less resistance. The time of day you workout should be when you don’t feel rushed or overly stressed. As soon as working out becomes a chore, you’re likely to quit your habit.
Look at your entire week and find the best times to exercise. Start from Monday and go through to Sunday. Break down what you do each day to identify time slots that would make sense. Maybe you have 2 hours on a Tuesday evening. Maybe you have another spare hour or more on a Thursday evening. You can even go one step further and create a table like the one below, add in your daily routine and see where you could fit workouts in.
4. Now make a plan
Once you’ve identified your goal, you know you need discipline not motivation and you’ve found slots in your week where your workout habit will be achievable, you next need to make a plan but not just any old plan, a realistic one. Have you ever tried to create a new habit only to bite off more than you can chew? I know I have. I usually end up labelling myself as a failure after throwing in the towel. In my experience, we tend to go too big too soon rather than making incremental adjustments that lead to big things.
Let’s say you want to start running and your goal is to increase your endurance by at least 25%. You might decide you want to start running or cycling to achieve this. Instead of planning a massive run that takes an hour and leaves you feeling sore afterwards, start by going for a 20-minute jog to adjust yourself to the process. From there you can build up and you’ll find yourself becoming more and more adapted rather than broken and unmotivated.
The last time I went for a big run, I went for over 45 minutes around the local forest only to feel completely puffed out and exhausted. I didn’t do any stretches beforehand and I suffered because of it. I had no real plan, I thought I’d still be able to run for as long as I did when I was a kid. The truth was, I hadn’t moved my body like that for about seventeen years so I was always going to find it difficult going too far too early on. Needless to say, I didn’t go for a run in the forest again after that experience….
However, what I did do some years later was buy an exercise bike. I knew I’d be committed and find it easy to use because I would keep it in my bedroom. I made a plan to use it at least 3 times a week and I’ve mostly managed to stick to that habit. I wanted to use it to improve my cardiovascular health and so far it’s been a joy to use.
However, I didn’t go overboard at first. I built up the duration and consistency of my workouts over weeks and months. My workouts have also become smarter so I’m not just endlessly cycling for 1 hour +. I stick to training videos that range from 15, 20 and 30 minutes. They are hard and intense and I now look forward to using my bike. It no longer feels like a habit, just something I do because it makes me feel good.
5. Make it enjoyable
In my experience, one of the most important things to make working out a habit is to make it enjoyable. If you don’t enjoy it, you’ll soon lose vision of the goal. That said, if you’re starting off slow your current ability level should always align with the workout intensity, at least at first. There will always come a time when you need to push harder but if you’ve built your strength up over time sensibly, your workouts should feel more like a challenge to overcome rather than a chore.
I enjoy my workouts because I get such a buzz knowing I’ve done something worthwhile with my time. My body feels like it’s been exercised but I also get a calmness in my mind, a feeling that is hard to find outside of exercising.
You might find that your workouts are more enjoyable if you work out with a friend, for example, or when you listen to music. The bottom line is, your workouts should feel somewhat rewarding if you want to make them a habit.
6. Make working out important
If you’re going to make working out a habit, you need to make that part of your life important. That means reading books and articles about the things that will lead you to your goal, watching videos and constantly learning outside of the gym. Whilst I don’t think it’s healthy to ever obsess over one thing, making your new workout habit an important part of your life (instead of something you’re just trying) is vital.
If your new habit is important to you, it won’t feel like a chore and your motivation, discipline and enjoyment will only increase the deeper you delve into the subject of wellness.
There will be times when you’ll be tempted to skip a workout and go out with friends. If you do end up skipping a habit time slot, don’t beat yourself up. Just get back on the horse the next time you need to workout. However, making your new workout habit a priority in your life will make it easier to say no to people.
One way to make your new habit feel more important is to use the one-year rule.
7. Use the one-year rule
The one-year rule is something I always think of when I try and implement a new activity or habit into my life. The idea is to ask yourself where you want to be in one year’s time. Do you want to be in the same position? Do you want to be 10 pounds lighter? Do you want to have more muscle and be stronger? Do you want to be wealthier? It doesn’t matter what it is. The point is that you won’t get what you want unless you start doing things towards that goal right now. If you don’t you’ll be in the same position you are right now in a year’s time.
The weeks and months fly by. Before you know it, you’ll be one week in, two, one month, etc. The following is an overused quote but it’s true.
“The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
8. Track your progress
One of the most helpful things you can do when you want to make working out a habit is to find a way of tracking your progress. Thankfully there are plenty of habit trackers you can download to use on your phone and many are workout and health-related. My personal favourite is MyFitnessPal. One of the best things about habit tracker apps is the fact they have reminders.
Tracking your progress with a habit tracker is a simple thing to do, all you have to do is remember to do it! Tracking your progress builds discipline and motivation and once you start, you won’t want to stop because it becomes kind of fun.
If you want to download an awesome printable habit tracker, you can download my printable Happy Habits habit tracker here.
9. Create the right environment
To make working out a stupid simple habit to stick to, you have to set up your environment the right way. For example, if you’re using an exercise bike, keep it in your bedroom or front room instead of your garage. You have to make it easy to do your workout. Take the time to get any clothing or equipment you might need ahead of time so you’re always ready to go.
We all have many cues throughout our day that trigger our existing habits like;
Walking into the kitchen in the morning = coffee
Using the bathroom before bed = brushing teeth
Sitting down on the sofa = Netflix
Watching the football = having a beer
Scrolling social media in the evening = 2 hours wasted
If you make it difficult for yourself you’ll never be able to stick to a workout habit. It’s also helpful to remove unhealthy cues that get in the way of your workouts. For example, when I’m using my exercise bike, I’ll leave my phone in another room so I can stay fully focused on my workout because I know I may be tempted to check it during the time I set aside to exercise.
You can only prioritise a set amount of things in a day. So, how will you fit your workout into your 24 hours?
10. Find a like-minded community
To keep yourself on track, finding a like-minded community can be a game-changer. If you don’t have anyone in your life that is trying to make working out a habit like you or someone who already has been working out for some time, you can find many people online that can help you along and inspire you. Whenever I’m trying something new, I always go online to seek out inspiration. Finding someone who started at 0 and is now deep into the process can help you to discover a path that you can replicate. It also reminds you that sticking to the process can pay off.
There are tonnes of helpful communities on websites like Reddit, Facebook groups, Bodybuilding.com, etc. Some of the tips and advice from those in these communities are priceless and you may find things that you never would have thought of on your own that could lead to a personal breakthrough.
11. Trust the process
Like most things, you won’t see results straight away. Generally speaking, we live in a society that seeks instant gratification. However, when it comes to something like working out, results take weeks and usually months to see for yourself. In fact, others will normally notice changes in you before you do. You’ll look different in the mirror everyday because weightloss isn’t linear, for example. Most of working out is trusting the process and doing the right things over and over again until the result you want eventually start to shine through.
Over the past 6 months I’ve been exercising on a regular basis whilst cleaning up my diet a lot. Whilst I haven’t felt overly different, I’ve had lots of comments about how trim I look which is the first time I’ve ever heard this from other people. This perfectly demonstrated the importance of trusting the process to me and proved that consistency pays off.
Do you have any of your own tips for making working out a habit? Let us know in the comments below!