Everyone wants to work out. But how many actually do?
Working out is one of the most popular goals around. It is not just the top New Year’s Resolution: “stay fit and healthy” and “lose weight” are the top two resolutions.
At the same time, fit people seem to stay fit effortlessly. When “life gets in the way,” some people fall off the bandwagon and give up. For others, working out becomes second nature.
How can you get in the habit of working out, so that you don’t have to worry about skipping workouts?
How to Get in the Habit of Working Out
1) Choose Small Actions
You are just starting a workout routine. You are not going to be able to work out for three hours a day.
Burnout is a huge problem when you are starting out. When starting an exercise routine, it’s easy to get excited and bite off more than you can chew. As Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg says, “the number one mistake people make is not going tiny enough.”
If you can work out for 10 minutes every other day, you’re better off than you were before.
Eventually, you can scale up. With a baseline habit established and time for workouts built into your routine, it will be much easier to up the effort. If you were building a house, you would start by pouring the concrete foundation instead of just building in the mud.
Habits are no different. Establish your foundation through small actions.
2) Define Personally Important Goals
Researchers agree: goal setting helps you put in more effort and stay motivated over time. But when you set goals, it’s important to do it correctly.
You have probably heard of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Realistic, Time-bound) goals, and that’s a good place to start. It’s important for your goals to be as specific as possible; “lose 30 pounds in 3 months by eating home-cooked foods and exercising at a gym” is a better goal than just “lose weight.”
But in addition to setting specific goals, it’s important that you know why your goals are important to you personally. Do you want to lose 30 pounds to feel more confident in yourself? To be healthier (and what does “healthy” mean for you)? To attract a partner? To fit into old clothes?
How will your life change once you achieve your goal? Understanding your goal’s importance makes you more likely to follow through on it.
3) Define, and Plan for, Challenges
Why do people think that they will be able to work out three hours a day, seven days a week? Too much excitement and optimism.
It’s good if you’re excited about working out, but it’s also important to stay realistic. The planning fallacy is a very common cognitive bias, and highlights the facts that we (as humans) are bad at making plans because we don’t anticipate challenges that come up in the future.
Have you ever thought “oh, I’ll do that next week when I have more time,” and then discover, next week, that you’re just as busy as always? Next week always seems emptier because it hasn’t filled up yet. But it always does.
With working out, what will you do when you’re tired and hungry after work and just want to go home and eat dinner?
What will you do when you show up to the gym and have no idea what workout to do?
What will you do when you’re in bed on a Saturday, it’s raining, and you were supposed to work out?
If you have no plan, it’s easy to do nothing. To skip the workout. To awkwardly stand around looking at the machines and leave. Thinking about these challenges when you start, and brainstorming some potential solutions, gives you a plan of action.
You know that you will be tired and hungry after work. Can you bring a mid-afternoon snack? Can you drink a 2 pm cup of coffee?
You know that you need a workout to do, and that you don’t feel comfortable in the gym. Can you watch videos of exercises in advance? Can you find a simple bodyweight workout to do at home?
These are problems that you can anticipate, and planning for them makes you much more likely to achieve your goals.
4) Write Everything Down
As you go through the process of identifying your challenges and goals, write everything down.
This cannot be understated. If your goals only exist inside your head, they aren’t goals: they’re dreams.
If you keep your goals confined to your head, it’s easy to develop false confidence. Problems are waved away with an attitude of “I’ll figure it out when it comes up.” But they never get figured out, and you stop exercising.
Writing out goals gives you a plan of action. It’s the difference between lying on the couch and opening another bag of chips, guiltily knowing that you should be at the gym, and walking out of the gym refreshed, with the rest of your day ahead of you.
As an added bonus, research shows that writing down your goals can have health benefits that stick around as long as five months later.
Write down your goals, the reasons they are important, the challenges you will face, and the ways you will overcome them. Everything will become easier.
5) Build Exercise into Your Existing Habits
I’ve been working out for years, 3–4 times a week like clockwork. Working out on a Saturday is still hard.
When I exercise after work, I just stay on the bus for two extra stops and am at the gym. I don’t have to think about it; I just go straight from the bus to the gym. I already have my gym clothes with me.
On the weekend, there’s no structure to my schedule. I lie in bed until I feel like getting up, I click around on the internet until I feel like making food. Eventually I might go to the gym, but to do that requires getting dressed, getting out the door, making the trip from my apartment…
There are too many decisions to make.
Whenever you can, let your environment convince you to work out. Research shows that habits are easiest to form when they come after existing habits.
After you complete a chain of actions (for example, your morning bathroom routine) there isn’t a clear next action to take. Adding a next action and extending the chain is an easy way to have your environment tell you what to do.
You have dozens of existing habits already. When I wanted to start meditating, I built it into my morning routine—use bathroom, shave, brush teeth, shower, moisturize—and simply tacked it onto the end.
What existing habits do you already have? Set up your schedule to let you go smoothly from one action to the next.
6) Don’t Do Things You Hate
You would expect this to go without saying, but it never seems to. New exercisers often do things they hate because they think they are “supposed” to.
If you hate running, don’t run! If you hate interval training, don’t do it!
Once you have an established exercise habit, you can consider adding those things back in to see if your feelings towards them have changed (they often do). But there is no single correct or “necessary” exercise plan that everyone needs to follow.
Along the same lines, don’t work yourself to the point of exhaustion every workout. When you’re starting out, feeling terrible after every workout is a great way to stop yourself from ever working out again.
Do things you enjoy (or at least tolerate). Exercise should make you feel good, not miserable. Feeling good will help you stick to a routine, reach your goals, and get in the habit of working out.