The Best Way to Start an Exercise Habit

We all know we should exercise and eat well. Funny how knowing something seems to have little effect on our ability to do it successfully. Why is that? 

Perhaps your GP has recommended you exercise a little more, or you've had a recent health scare. Maybe your family has been nagging you to get off the couch or you've decided that it's time to lose some weight. Whatever the reason, you've decided to start exercising. Now what? 

Where do you even begin if you haven’t exercised in a while, or ever? What’s the best way to start and actually have it stick? 

KNOW WHY YOU'RE STARTING

Sometimes it takes a health scare to move us into action. Or a plea from a loved one who wants to make sure you're around as long as possible. Surviving a serious illness or feeling the impact of a sedentary lifestyle can be scary but also help us decide to change.

One of the keys to consistency is knowing WHY you're doing it and why it matters. What are you actually trying to achieve? Do you want to feel proud of yourself when you look in the mirror, be strong enough to pick up your grandkids, or look and feel great at your son's 21st? Or maybe you're just sick and tired of making excuses and you want to be the kind of person who does what they say they will. 

We're primarily visual creatures so keeping visual reminders of your goals and intentions can be a really helpful tool. Visualising your desired outcome or the feeling you'll get from accomplishing your goal is a powerful way to create a new self-image in your mind's eye. 

If you've never really exercised before or it's been years, it’s a good idea to get a health check with your GP before starting.

FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU LIKE 

Now is not the time for arbitrary goals. Sometimes we think we should have certain goals just because other people do. Don't say you're going to start running if you hate running. Pick something you actually enjoy. If you're going to exercise, it might as well be enjoyable.

It's not a punishment, it's a form of self-care and a way to invest in your health. Maybe that's walking in the forest or on the beach. Maybe it's a group fitness class so you can just show up and not have to think about what to do because it's programmed for you. Maybe it's an at-home YouTube workout where no one can see you doing your thing. Maybe it's putting on some favourite tunes and dancing it out in your living room. 

BE SPECIFIC 

Research has shown that people who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through. How many times have you said "I'm going to eat healthier" or "I'm going to get in shape" or "I should work out more"? 

We leave it up to chance and hope that we will just remember to do it or we rely on willpower or hope to feel 'motivated' at the right time. Good luck with that. 

The solution to our good intentions? Set an implementation intention as outlined by James Clear in his bestselling book Atomic Habits. 

What that sounds like is this: I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

  • I will go for a walk at 5 pm around my neighbourhood. 
  • I will do a spin class at 6:15 am at my local gym. 
  • I will do 10 pushups at 8 pm in my living room. 

It sounds ridiculously simple but perhaps that's why it works. If you aren't sure when to start your habit, try the first day of the week, month or year. People are more likely to take action at those times because a fresh start feels more motivating. 

Research has shown that people who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through.

STACK IT 

No behaviour happens in isolation. You often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing. Going to the bathroom leads to washing and drying your hands (hopefully), which reminds you that you need to put the dirty towels in the laundry, which reminds you to add laundry detergent to your shopping list, and so on. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behaviour. 

When it comes to starting an exercise routine, use your current habits to your advantage. 

Use this habit stacking formula: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

  • After I take off my work shoes, I will change into my workout gear. 
  • After I turn on the kettle, I will do 20 squats while waiting. 
  • After I tuck my kids in, I will do my online yoga video. 

The key is to tie your exercise to something you're already doing each day. When and where you choose to insert exercise into your daily routine can make a big difference. Consider when you are most likely to be successful and remember that it's a good idea to start small. 

PLAN FOR YOUR EXCUSES

You can have the best 'why' in the world but if you don't make a plan of action for starting and staying started, it's not happening mate. 

Life is going to happen and you're not going to FEEL like exercising a lot of the time. The hardest part about getting to the gym is often getting off the couch and into your car. Once you're at the gym, it's not so bad. 

Get people onside to help you stick with your plan. Maybe your kids get a reward if you go for a daily walk (they will definitely remind you). Ask your partner to encourage you if you start making excuses. Have a backup set of workout clothes in your car at all times, or just a pair of walking shoes so that you can't use that as an excuse. 

Knowing that you're not going to feel motivated a lot of the time can be really helpful if only to normalise the struggle. There are a lot of things we don't feel like doing but we do them anyway. You don't have to feel like going for a walk to go for a walk. Just do it anyway. 

CONSISTENCY IS KEY

Often when we're starting new things we like to go gung ho. The problem is this usually isn't sustainable. So start small and build up. Better to walk for 10 minutes every day than for an hour once per fortnight. Be realistic. Most of us have had the experience of starting strong only to peter out just as quickly. The goal of developing an exercise habit is to stick with it, for it to become part of your lifestyle, and for health to become part of your identity. 

The real key to creating an exercise habit that will last is to build the identity of someone who enjoys exercise and then prove it to yourself with small wins. 

IN SUMMARY

  • Know why you want to exercise and what it means to you.
  • Pick something you can actually enjoy.
  • Be specific: I will [BEHAVIOUR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
  • Stack it onto something you're already doing: After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
  • Plan for your excuses and have a backup plan.
  • Prove to yourself that you can be consistent with small wins. 

Source: Robin Smith (Synergy Health)

References: Atomic Habits by James Clear

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