Five Things You Can Do to Make Exercise a Habit Once and for All
If your exercise history includes more false starts than goals met, it's time to create a habit you can stick with for the rest of your life. The good news, says Toril Hinchman, the director of fitness and wellness on Thomas Jefferson University's East Falls campus, is that it doesn't have to mean changing your entire lifestyle. "Just keep doing something—any exercise, any length—on a daily basis, and it will eventually become a positive part of your lifestyle," she says. And armed with these-expert approved tips, making some form of exercise part of your daily life won't seem like a challenge at all.
Identify your motivation.
You can read every health and fitness article that shows up in your newsfeed, but a true lifestyle change is more likely to happen when you have a self-driven reason to adjust your habits: having more energy to play with your kids, giving up your all-day yoga pants habit, running a race for a charitable cause. "We tend to be less successful establishing an exercise routine when we are solely working on external motivations," says Hinchman. "Having someone else tell us to make changes isn't enough—we must decide what our internal motivating factors are and work with them. Find your 'why:' Why is this important to you? Why make changes now?"
Find a routine you can stick to.
Establishing an exercise habit doesn't have to mean investing in a high-tech spin bike or forcing yourself to love running. "You don't need an expensive studio membership or to shop around for the latest and greatest home equipment: Go for a long walk, climb that steep neighborhood hill a few times, jog through the park," says Hinchman. As for the best time of day to exercise, says Hinchman, "There is also no true 'one size fits all.' For someone to tell you that working out in the morning is best, this doesn't take into account your personal preferences and the other things you have to do in a day. Begin by sliding small exercise bouts into your regular schedule, and over time, it will become a bigger—and more guaranteed—part of your day." When it is safe to do so, combine socializing with your sweat sessions to give yourself a motivational boost: "Invite a friend along for the ride!" recommends Hinchman. "Find someone you can rely on to hold you accountable to your new exercise habit and goals."
Don't overdo it (at first).
When you're trying to build an exercise habit, says Hinchman, consistency is more important than duration. "I believe it's far easier to make regular exercise a habit if you commit to doing something every day—some days it may be just walking around the block for 10 minutes," she says. "Rather than trying to commit to two-hour time blocks, three times a week, make the commitment to do something every single day. Put it on your calendar with a reminder, block off the time so it doesn't get taken with another commitment, and even if it's only 20 minutes, stick with it."
Change one habit at a time.
Deciding to start an exercise routine typically comes with a list of other health adjustments you want to make—get more sleep, stop eating sugar, drink more water—but trying to accomplish all those tweaks at the same time leads to frustration. "We often try to make too many changes at once: We cannot change a daily routine and wake up at a different time and change our diets and train for our first marathon all at the same time," says Hinchman. "When people try to make too many large-scale changes at once, it is much more challenging to maintain this as a regular commitment. Your current patterns and practices were not established overnight; you cannot expect to make huge changes to your normal daily living in just one day or week. Make small, incremental changes, rather than trying to rewrite your entire existence, and build on them as you go."
Don't rush yourself.
While many experts point to three or four weeks as the minimum amount of time you'll need to solidify a habit, that's not a hard-and-fast rule. "It depends on an individual's intrinsic motivation and follow-through," says Hinchman. "What most agree on is that while it may take three or four weeks to form an initial habit, it takes much longer for it to become automatic and a natural part of your life!" One example: If a person goes for a walk three times a week, after three weeks, they've gone on only nine walks. "Will they have formed a habit that will become a part of their life—a habit that is so entrenched that it no longer involves conscious thought?" says Hinchman. "While everyone is different, the 21/90 rule is a good guideline: 21 days to create a habit, and 90 days to create a lifestyle."