“You’re so disciplined,” said my wife, trying to be encouraging. I surely wasn’t feeling it this day. When it’s time for one of my three weekly strength-training sessions, I’m normally raring to go. But after a jam-packed week and another shutdown of my gym due to the pandemic, all I wanted was to collapse into a chair with a good book. I knew full well that making fitness a habit is the key to getting in shape or staying that way. Still, my willpower was M.I.A.
Chalk it up to human nature. We’re really good at seeking immediate gratification but notoriously less good at working toward long-term goals, like saving for retirement or warding off heart disease. As fickle as willpower can be, it doesn’t take much to derail it.
Fortunately, our higher brains can come to the rescue and help us make good on our intentions. Ultimately, I did rouse myself and completed the at-home workout I’ve devised to substitute for my gym routine during the pandemic. I even did some extra repetitions for good measure.
Strategies to help you make fitness a habit
What carried me through was a combination of strategies that can apply not only to exercising but also to any kind of endeavor that requires consistent follow-through.
1. Harness the power of habit1
Once established, habits can step in where willpower falters. Habits are powerful because they’re how we structure our lives. And the more we follow them, the stronger and more automatic they become.
When you’re in the habit of exercising regularly, your brain will give you a small inner hit of satisfaction every time you mentally check that box. It may also feel “wrong” to skip your workout without a good reason.
Because our bodies need different types of physical activity to be fully functional, I’ve also earmarked an hour a day, six days a week for fitness. On the days I’m not doing strength training, I work on cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and balance. That hour-a-day model makes things simpler by eliminating ambiguity. I might switch up exactly what I do and when, but the amount of time I devote to fitness is fixed.
Here are some additional tips to further entrench the fitness habit:
Cement the habit
How do you get to the point where the exercise habit is firmly cemented into your daily life? One crucial step is being specific about what you will do and when and where you will do it. Telling yourself “I want to walk more,” or even “my goal is 5,000 steps a day,” may not be enough. Deciding that “I will walk for 30 minutes before lunch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday” is more likely to lead to the results you want.
Another effective technique is what some label “habit stacking.” The idea is to link a habit you want with one that’s already ingrained. For example, if your goal is to grow more limber, you could decide to stretch for 20 minutes daily just before you brush your teeth in the morning.
A similar approach, called “temptation bundling2,” is to condition something you want on the activity you’re trying to cultivate. You could promise yourself to watch your favorite TV show only after you’ve done the exercise you planned.
Of course, stuff happens. Inevitably, there will be times when something unexpected foils your plans. But you’ll be prepared for that if you’ve got a clear fallback: “if something prevents me from walking before lunch on Wednesday, I will do it before dinner or slot in an extra session over the weekend.”
In essence, steps like these let you structure your life to reduce your dependence on willpower. One interesting study found that the subjects who scored high on measures of self-control—in this case, being able to resist eating sweets—didn’t necessarily have stronger willpower than the others.
Their secret was not keeping those kinds of foods in the house and not going to restaurants with an alluring dessert menu. It’s not that they were better at managing temptation; they were simply exposed to it less often.
The takeaway: If you find it hard to exercise, take a close look at the habits and structures in your life rather than lamenting your lack of willpower.
2. Reframe the reward
Willpower doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s fueled largely by your motivation—the reason why you want to exercise. Your willpower reflects how dedicated you are in this moment to making it happen.
If your motivation is compelling, your will to follow through will be that much stronger. For most of us, though, vague, long-term benefits like reducing risks of cancer or dementia simply aren’t that inspiring. The line between action (or inaction) and the consequence is blurry. it’s all too easy to think, “it won’t happen to me.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that long-term motivations can never be effective. It’s different if your “why” is an intense, heartfelt desire. Say, living long enough to see your grandchildren graduate from college or being in good enough shape to take a long-awaited 50th-anniversary trip. Visualizing the outcome you want can powerfully reinforce an exercise habit-in-the-making.
But for me, the most effective motivations are short-term. When I start warming up for my workout, I know from experience that I will come away feeling re-energized and just plain great! Why would I want to miss that burst of well-being? Virtually all the devoted exercisers I know say the same thing: I work out because it makes me feels so good!
The takeaway: Whatever your reasons, “I want to exercise” is a much greater boost to motivation and willpower than telling yourself, “I should.”
3. Expand your exercise options
Exercise isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. If you’re having a low-energy day or simply aren’t in the mood, there’s no law that says you have to cling rigidly to your normal routine.
You could, for example, pick an alternative activity. Don’t want to lift weights? Go for a hike or bicycle ride instead. You can pick up your strength training tomorrow. On the other hand, you could do half your normal workout. That could mean doing fewer exercises, or lifting lighter weights, or doing fewer reps. Once you get going and your blood starts pumping, you may find yourself so invigorated that you end up doing your whole workout after all.
Of course, if you’re injured or recovering, fighting off a cold, or seriously sleep-deprived, it might make sense to take a day off. It’s important to listen to your body. Still, doing something is almost always better than doing nothing.
The takeaway: When it comes to getting fit, sheer will power is vastly overrated. Instead, try these 5 tips to make fitness a habit for life.
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4. Do one small thing instead of nothing
We often assume that motivation and willpower are what lead us to action. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes a little bit of action, no matter how small, can “prime the pump,” spurring us to do more. It’s a virtuous cycle that starts with action, which reminds you of your motivation and boosts your willpower, leading to more action.
If you want to exercise, but your willpower is flagging, do something to get the ball rolling. Change into your workout clothes. Lace-up your sneakers. Pick out an energizing soundtrack. Do stretches.
Then do some jumping jacks or some other warm-up exercise for one minute—just 60 seconds. When you’ve done that, ask yourself whether you’re ready to do five minutes, and then go on from there.
The takeaway: It’s been said that the hardest step in any exercise program is getting off the couch. Mustering just a little bit of momentum can make it much easier to work toward your goals.
5. Use it or lose it
There is one more mental maneuver I use when my exercise habit needs shoring up. It centers on what behavioral economists call “loss aversion.”
Economists have learned that when it comes to our money, it’s human nature to feel more pain from a $100 loss than pleasure from a $100 gain. That can be a problem if it leads you to take undue risk, like holding on to a plunging stock because you’re unwilling to sustain any loss.
In the context of fitness, however, loss aversion is a plus. I know that if I had to stop exercising for any reason, I would rapidly lose conditioning. And while those losses would be reversible, it would probably take twice as long to rebuild my strength and cardio endurance as it did to lose them.
–Use it or lose it
By the way, the principle of “use it or lose it” isn’t just for gym rats. It also applies to those who aren’t exercising. We lose lean muscle mass and function as early as our thirties, particularly, if we’re not doing something to offset it. Further, the process of losing muscle mass only accelerates as we age3.
This is not to say you can’t slow deconditioning by exercising just once or twice a week. Nor does it mean that you should never skip an exercise session. Even elite athletes take a break now and then.
–There’s no substitute for consistency
Still, if you want your exercise program to yield measurable results, there’s no substitute for consistency. This recently came home to me when my exercise routine was disrupted by a move from one city to another.
I soon got back to my usual schedule, but even when I opted to lift lighter weights, getting through my workout felt surprisingly arduous for the next week or two. I remember that experience any time I’m tempted to skip a session. I’ve worked too hard and too long on fitness to let up now.
The takeaway: Remind yourself that you may lose conditioning fairly rapidly when you stop exercising and it can be an arduous process to get it back
The bottom line on making fitness a lasting habit
To sum it all up: we expect too much of ourselves when we depend on willpower to help us meet fitness goals. Willpower is temporary and ephemeral. Habit is a much more enduring and reliable foundation for an exercise program. But even deeply rooted habits need to be shored up or adapted now and then. That’s when we need to enlist our mental powers. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that fitness challenges are as much mental as they are physical.
2. Milkman K, Minson J, Volpp K. Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling, Manage Sci. 2014 Feb; 60(2): 283–299. doi: 10.1287/mnsc.2013.1784 PMCID: PMC4381662 NIHMSID: NIHMS540597 PMID: 25843979