How To Start an Exercise Habit—And Stick With It

Runner puts on shoes.Just under half of all adult Americans do not meet the physical exercise guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re one of these people, you probably already know that you should be exercising. You’ve heard all the benefits of frequent exercise: how it can control your weight, build resilience against disease and illness, increase your energy, lift your mood, and help you sleep. But you’re still not doing it. Why?

Often it’s because we’re not very good at building the habit itself. We book ourselves into a yoga studio, join a gym, decide to run everyday, or find a tribe of fellow cyclists — but we don’t know how to commit to a regular rhythm of engaging in that practice. We decide we’ll exercise when we feel like it, which means we rarely do it. To succeed at this, you need to focus on building the habit itself.

Here are a few ways to make it work for the long-haul:

Start Small

Instead of taking on the Boston Marathon, what if you were to walk around the block once a day at work for a week. Clearly, this isn’t a huge aerobic workout — and it probably doesn’t hit the CDC’s guidelines. However, because it’s so manageable you’ll be that much more likely to do it. And through the very act of doing it — walking, moving your legs, breathing in that fresh air, and successfully accomplishing the goal for a week — your confidence will scale up. So set yourself a tiny, totally achievable goal — and just enjoy seeing it through. 

Try a 30-Day Challenge

When you’ve identified the form of exercise you’ll be doing, set up a goal for a month. Don’t commit to something for the rest of your life — that’s too easy to fail at, then feel bad. But by committing to something for a certain stretch of time, it’s that much easier to succeed. Perhaps you decide you’ll go for a run two mornings a week for 30 days. If you make it through to the end of your challenge, congratulate yourself, perhaps have a few days off to celebrate and laze about in glory, then commit once again.

Build Triggers Into Your Schedule

According to a fascinating study published in the journal Health Psychology, some of the most successful people build exercise routines based on “instigation habits”, where an environmental or internal trigger tells them it’s time to exercise. This might be an simple as setting an alarm on your phone, deciding to put on your running shoes as soon as you wake up in the mornings, or deciding that at 5:30pm every Tuesday and Thursday, you’ll go to the gym. By making it an automatic trigger, all ambiguity goes out the window. It’s not about whether or not you feel like doing it, it’s on your calendar. 

In order to build long-term habits, you need to set yourself up for success by defining and setting manageable goals. Then focus on seeing through those goals. Once you do this in a sustained manner over time, you’ll start to feel all those benefits of exercise kicking in. You’ll be feeling stronger, looking better, boosting your natural serotonin levels and sleeping more peacefully. You’ll have created a virtuous cycle, where to not exercise actually feels bad. At this point, the habit is so ingrained, it’s become a part of you.