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How to Develop a Fitness Habit That Sticks
You know it’s worthwhile to exercise, but how do you make it happen?
Feb 7 · 6 min read
Many people resolve to start a fitness regimen in the new year. But, by the second week of February, around 80% have fallen off their New Year’s resolutions. If you started with the best of intentions, but are finding your efforts slump, you are not alone.
Sometimes, our intentions fade away into the same old habits.
But, it’s not too late. You can improve your fitness and your health. And, it’s worth doing so.
Below are some strategies to develop a new fitness routine into a habit. Because that’s what you want for the long-term: for fitness to be a way of life. A habit that you don’t think about because it is part of your routine.
Ways to develop a fitness habit
Pick an activity you enjoy.
There are a million ways to move your body. Whether it is walking, running, cycling, rowing, yoga, or salsa class, it doesn’t much matter. Any sort of regular physical activity can improve your fitness and health. If you pick something you enjoy, you are more likely to stick with it.
If it is too intimidating to think about getting out the door for a five-mile run, then aim for a five-minute walk. Do that every day until it no longer seems like a big deal.
Extend your activity by a few minutes each day. Or, increase the intensity in small bursts. If you are starting with walking but would like to run eventually, then add little bursts. In the middle of a walk, pick up the pace to jog for a block, then return to walking. Over time, increase the ratio of jogging to walking, until your outing becomes more of a run than a walk.
Pick something that you know you can do every day. A five-minute walk every morning and every evening. Five push-ups before bed each night. Establish some base level of activity that you know you can do every single day.
Mix it up.
With consistency, there is a risk of boredom. If you find yourself uninspired by doing the same thing every day, change it up. If you usually cycle outdoors, go to an indoor cycling class. The music, instructor-led workout, and group camaraderie can give a nice adrenaline boost.
If you usually run solo, invite a friend or join a group run. If you usually run without music, listen to a playlist of your favorite upbeat songs. If you often run in the neighborhood, head out to a scenic trail.
Just as you would for a work meeting or doctor’s appointment, put your fitness activity in your calendar. Be specific about when and where, and what the activity will be: “Run 3 miles around the lake at 5 pm after work on Tuesday, Feb 11.” Set it up as a recurring event.
Pair your new activity with an existing habit.
It can help to schedule your new fitness activity side-by-side with an already established habit. Suppose you take your lunch break at noon every day. Schedule a run or midday gym class at noon, then grab a quick bite to eat before returning to work for the afternoon.
Soon, you will associate your lunch break with exercise, and you will look forward to that time as an energizer for the rest of the day.
Keep a log of your activities. It can be motivating to see both the consistency and improvement over time. If you know you will have to record your activity (or lack thereof), it can get you out the door when you might otherwise be tempted to stay on the couch. There are numerous fitness apps that you could use, or simply a paper notebook.
Make it convenient.
Try to make your activity as convenient as possible. Join the gym on the way home from work, rather than the nicer one across town. Keep a gym bag in the trunk of your car, fully stocked with your workout clothes, water bottle, and a small snack.
Adjust when you have to. If a morning meeting runs over, and you don’t have time for the lunchtime workout you had planned, then go for a power walk around the block instead. Go smaller, but try not to skip.
If you do skip, forgive yourself and start back up the next day. One missed workout won’t make a difference in the long run. What matters is the pattern of activity over time. Get back out there.
Reframe your identity.
The more you think of fitness as a part of who you are, the more likely you are to stick with it. Think of yourself as a runner, rather than a sedentary person who is trying to get in shape. Think of yourself as an athlete. The more your behavior aligns with your values and identity, the easier it is to make it a habit.
Expand your definition of fitness.
You don’t need to be doing a “workout” in order to get exercise. Find a million little ways to move your body more during the day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park further away. Walk to the market instead of driving. Get up for frequent walk breaks at work. Use a manual can opener instead of electric.
Find ways to use your own horsepower rather than relying on a gadget that does things for you.
Make fitness a lifestyle, not an end-goal.
Aiming toward a concrete goal such as running a race or losing a certain amount of weight can be motivating in the short-term. But, what happens when you reach your goal? Do you keep with the behavior that got you there?
If you do, great! But, many people fall back into old habits. For longevity, it helps to look at fitness as a way of life, not simply a means to an end.
Make fitness a priority.
Sometimes, there may not be enough time in the day to get everything done. You may have to make choices. When deciding what to prioritize, remember that nothing is more important than your health.
If you take care of your health, everything else will follow. You will find that you have more energy for family, friends, work, and leisure.
Nothing is more important than your health.
It doesn’t really matter whether your motivation is improved health, losing weight, a better physique, or completing a milestone like a particular race.
Ultimately, the real reason to exercise is that it can improve your health and longevity.
Do you want to live well into your later years?
Do you want to be able to travel when you’re retired? Do you want to climb mountains into old age?
Do you want to have the energy to play with your grandkids?
Do you want to be self-sufficient and independent until your last days?
All of this can be powerfully affected by staying fit and active throughout your life.
One of the fittest people I know is a guy in his eighties. I see him at my local gym, in the rowing classes.
He has a slight build and a modest demeanor. You might walk by him on the street and not really notice him.
But, this guy is insanely fit. He is the appointed “stroke” for the group, setting the pace for the workout. He rows splits that wallop those of rowers half his age, including mine.
How is he this fit well into his eighties? He kept up a fitness habit for the long term. He and his wife exercise together. Both of them are in exceptional shape and look a good twenty years younger than they are.
I’ve given this guy a lot of thought because he is the same age that my dad was.
My dad was a regular runner and cyclist when I was growing up. When he retired, he moved to a city with a gloomy, wet climate. He hated the weather, so he didn’t get out much.
The physical fitness he had maintained until his sixties gradually diminished, and by the time he was in his eighties, he was fairly frail.
When I would go visit, I was always struck by the contrast between his frailty and the robust health of my gym friend. They were the same age, but my dad seemed decades older.
Granted, a lot of things affect your health. But, exercise is certainly one of them.
Exercise improves your current fitness, lays a foundation for good health later, and can keep you strong into old age.
If you find your motivation wavering, take heart. Setting new habits can be hard, but you got this!
Remind yourself why it’s important.
Make this fitness resolution one that turns into a lifestyle habit.