The problem with trying to make exercise a habit, and it’s something that we’ve all faced, is that you usually try to exercise 3 or 4 times a week … and that makes creating a new exercise habit difficult. The reason is that the more consistent an action is, the more likely it is to be a habit.
Therefore, as Scott points out, and it’s something I fully agree with, exercising every day is more likely to result in a habit — something that becomes almost automatic, and much easier, instead of a constant struggle.
I’ve been implementing this idea in my daily life recently, alternating every day between different exercises: running, swimming, biking and strength workouts, as a way of reaching my goal of completing an Olympic-distance triathlon this year. I’m going to continue this habit change into the month of May. I made daily running a habit last year, when I was training for my first marathon, but this year I stopped when I got sick, so I’m re-starting the habit formation.
If you’re going to make this a habit, do a 30-day Challenge, and by the end of the challenge your habit should be pretty well ingrained. Here are some practical suggestions I’ve learned along the way to help make exercise a daily habit:
Set a time. Decide whether you’re more likely to stick with it in the morning or lunchtime or evening, and stick with that time. I’ve set the time of 5:30 a.m. every day, and I’m trying my best not to vary from that time. If you don’t set a time, you’re more likely to put it off until you have more time or energy, and then put it off until the next day. Soon, it’s not a habit at all.
Send yourself a reminder. I use Memo to Me, but there are a number of ways to send yourself an email or text reminder, so you’ll never forget. Then, when you get the reminder, do it right away. Don’t brook any delays.
Start small. This is perhaps the most useful suggestion of all. When I start exercising, I always start with lots of energy, enthusiasm and ambition. I think I can do more than I can. However, doing too much in the beginning leads to burnout, which leads to quitting your habit. When you first try to make exercise a daily habit, chances are, your body won’t be used to that kind of stress. The key: only do 20 minutes in the beginning, and do it nice and easy. Nothing hard. Even 10-15 minutes is fine at first, if you’re just starting out. The key is to get out there, get your body slowly used to daily exercise, and form that habit.
Progress later. Once your body is used to daily exercise, you can slowly start to increase the amount and intensity of your exercise. Wait at least two weeks before starting to increase — that’s the minimum your body needs to adjust. Once it begins to feel way too easy, you can start increasing the length of your workouts, to 30 and then 40 minutes, and eventually up to an hour. Once you do that, you can gradually increase the intensity — running faster or harder, for example. Try not to increase both distance and intensity at the same time.
Make it pleasurable. If you associate a habit with pain, you will shy away from it. But if it’s fun, you’ll look forward to doing it. That’s why, in this beginning stage of my new habit, I’ve been focusing on pleasure. I go slowly, enjoying the scenery, the fresh morning air, the beautiful sky as the sun rises, the quiet time of solitude and contemplation. It’s actually something I enjoy doing. An mp3 player with some great music helps.
Lay out your gear. The fewer obstacles and less friction there is in forming your new habit, the more likely you are to be successful. If you have to not only wake up early but get a bunch of gear together while half awake, you might just want to go back into bed. But if you lay out your workout clothes and shoes and watch and mp3 player, or whatever you need for your exercise, you’ll be ready to go with no friction at all.
Just head out the door. My rule is just to get my running shoes on and get out the door. I don’t worry about how long I have to go or how hard it will be. Just get out and get started. Once I’ve done that, it’s a piece of cake.
Mix it up. One thing I like about triathlon training is that daily exercise isn’t boring — instead of running every single day, now I’ve got a variety of sports to do, and that makes it much more interesting. But perhaps just as important is that with each sport, I’m using different muscles, especially with swimming. Sure, some of the same muscles are used, but they’re used differently with different stresses on them. What that means is that I’m not pounding the same muscles, every day. That gives them a chance to recover, because without recovery, you’re just breaking your muscles down over and over.
Have a relative rest day. Again, recovery is very important. Which is why you need to give your body a chance to rest. If you’re taking it easy, and only doing 20 minutes, you should be OK without rest days. But it’s still good to have one day of rest, where you’re not doing the same exercises as the other six days. You don’t want to skip the day completely, because then you’re not being consistent with your habit. That’s why I do one day of strength training, where I don’t use the same muscles as swimming, biking and running. If you need more rest, you could just do 20 minutes of walking, or even just a session of meditation. The key is to do something every day, preferably something that gets you moving (meditation isn’t the best example, but at least you’d be doing something) and keeps your habit formation going.
Don’t skip a day. It’s easy to say, “No problem, I’ve been doing it for five days … I’ll just skip today!” But that will make your habit formation harder. Consistency is key, so try not to skip a single day. If you do, don’t beat yourself up, don’t judge, don’t feel bad — everyone messes up sometimes, and habit formation is a skill that requires practice. Just start your 30-day challenge over again, and try to identify the obstacle that led to your skipping a day and prepare for it this time.