A lot of fitness professionals will tell you that if you only work out occasionally, it’s not a “real” workout because it’s not part of a consistent program. My fellow personal trainer pals and I laugh bitterly about this exclusionary “dudebro” point of view — every single workout benefits your body in very real ways, including boosting your mood and improving mental focus. That said, my interest as a trainer is helping people make exercise — whatever that means for them — part of their regular routines. So how do you make exercise a habit?
It’s good to start with a solid understanding of habits in general. Forming any kind of routine can be super hard — and it can take longer than you'd think. An often overlooked 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that the time it takes to form sustainable habits was anywhere between 18 and 254 days. The average time it took the 96 participants to form consistent habits was 66 days, or just over two months. This might still seem like an insurmountable amount of time between starting to run and actually doing it automatically. But if you emphasize joy in your process, you might find it easier to get there. Sure enough, the study found that personal factors (like how your way of creating a habit suits your personality) impact how long it takes for the habit to form. And don’t worry — the study found that missing your new goal once in a while won’t necessarily derail your goals.
It might still be intimidating to try to make exercise a habit, especially if you’ve tried before and it hasn’t stuck around. The key is to define exercise for yourself, and to create your workout habit around activities you enjoy. These five habit-forming hacks can help get you there.
Focus On What's Fun
Exercise can mean a wide array of things to you — increasing your cardiovascular fitness and endurance (so you can get to the second floor of your friend's house or run a 5K) or developing a lot of barbell-lifting superpowers. But if you don't choose a method for exercising that you'll find fun, you're not likely to be able to stick to it.
Want to exercise to boost your heart health but you hate running? (Same.) You can learn to row, or you might enjoy taking early morning walks with your puppy and portable mug of tea. Want to develop your strength? You might love rock climbing but hate lifting weights, or you might have a passionate affair with barbells but despise bodyweight training. For a combination of the above, you just might really love jungle-gym style play as your workouts. Whatever is fun to you, pursue that rather than trying to make a habit of something you hate.
Set Extremely "Small" Goals
The bigger your daily or weekly goals for your new exercise habit, the more intimidating they will be. If you make it a goal to hit the gym every single day when you're not used to going at all, for example, your body and mind will probably shy away from it pretty quickly. But if you start by saying you'll go once or twice a week, you'll build your confidence at the same time as you build your strength.
Not ready or willing to make a habit of the gym? No problem. Make it a habit to sit for even one minute of deep breathing every day and build from there. Deep breathing is crucial to every good workout, but it's not too demanding of your muscles or time. Setting a reminder on your phone can help, and if it's only a minute or two, you're more likely to be consistent than if you choose a more overwhelming starting point.
Give Yourself Rewards
Whether you're starting a new exercise habit or maintaining an old one, science says that giving yourself rewards along the way is a great way to keep up the consistency. According to a 2016 study published in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, rewarding yourself for each success on the path to making a habit of working out will strengthen your desire to work out. In other words, treating yourself to something that makes you happy, like an episode of your favorite show or a chapter of your favorite fan fiction post-workout can help you build and keep exercise habits.
Even if you miss a target for a particular day or week, don't stress too much — a single missed workout will not destroy your developing habit. When you come up short of your goals, be gentle with yourself. When you meet your goals, reward yourself. That's definitely a win-win.
Adjust As Needed
If you've been making progress toward creating an exercise habit but notice yourself stalling, do what I've done with clients: do a scan of your days to ask yourself what's going on. This scan is not about judging yourself, but rather about identifying why you're coming up short with your workouts. Maybe your body is in pain, your depression has flared up, or you're extremely stressed at work. You might also just not like the method of exercise you've chosen, even if it felt good at first.
Whatever's going on, don't be afraid to make adjustments as needed. Maybe you need to focus on home workouts instead of gym workouts for now, or maybe you need to start taking a class instead of trying to gym on your own. Whatever the case, you can still form an exercise habit, even if the specifics look different now than they did at the start.
Your habits grow and change just as often as you do, so as you're transforming your occasional workout into an exercise habit, be open to these kinds of evolutions. Progress won't always be linear, and that's OK. Be gentle with yourself and remember to have fun, and you'll be well on your way to your own personalized fitness journey.
Lally, P. (2009) How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.674.
Phillips, L. (2016) Intrinsic rewards predict exercise via behavioral intentions for initiators but via habit strength for maintainers. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fspy0000071.
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