Building Exercise into a Habit

I was asked by a patient about a month ago how best to turn exercise into a habit. I’ve been so stuck on this, because I think it’s different for everyone based on their personality. I’ve felt like I’ve grown and changed so much from when I was an undergrad student and first starting to exercise,that my motivation then was completely different than how it is now. The first thing I would like to comment on is: there is no such thing as, “I don’t have time.” Seriously. I don’t mean that in a mean way, but the reality is you’ll make something a priority, or you’ll make up an excuse (I don’t know where this quote is from, but I love it!! —except I always trail off at the end when saying it because it feels super harsh haha).

I’ve focused this topic into two main points… The first point being: You have to learn what your motivation is. It’s important to think about why you want to exercise… if you’re trying to truly fall in love with it don’t force yourself to sweat it out at the gym for an hour if you hate the gym. If you aren’t used to exercising at all, start with something that could be seamless to add into your day, like answering emails in the morning, watching TV, making phone calls etc while on a stationary machine.

For the “I just want to get it done, I don’t like exercise” type: I very much feel you. This is where I started haha. I would sit in the gym parking lot in between classes willing myself to go in. I sometimes would sit too long and then be like “ah, well, not enough time to work out. Maybe next week”. I eventually stopped fighting myself and just compromised that if I was going to watch TV/movies or study notes, it would be on some sort of exercise machine. For my whole undergrad degree, exercise consisted of my textbooks and notes on the exercise bike or elliptical and I would get it done that way. My “why” for exercising was because I knew it was good for me but I did not care about any other aspect of the process. I loved the after-effect of exercising (feeling proud of myself) so this was a great start.

Over time, my body started to crave movement and I wanted to shut my brain off while I exercised, so I started listening to music when I was on a machine and worked on getting my heart rate up. For me, this was meditation time, but I also was starting to enjoy the process of exercising. It was my mental and physical break. I had different aches and pains as I exercised, and I was really interested in why that would be, and then I started strength training. My body became a little faster and stronger. Then, I started making physical goals for myself. I originally said I hated running, but the idea of challenging myself to run a 5km, 10km distance sounded really intriguing.

Achieving my first fitness goal of “I want to be able to run a 10km” was life-changing. It was something I knew would take a lot of time and effort and I didn’t think I would have the mental or physical endurance for. It was a far cry away from being a lazy student sitting in the gym parking lot. When I accomplished the 10km, I realized that I had conditioned my body to take on something new- and it was completely addictive. It spilled over into all aspects of my life. I looked for new challenges and goals everywhere I could, because I no longer viewed myself as an individual with set limits and interests. I was open to trying new things.

My second point that I believe is crucial for developing habits is: building accountability for yourself. You are the sole person who you should trust when you say you’re going to do something. It sounds obvious, but how many times do you say: “maybe I’ll work out tomorrow at ___”. A) saying “maybe” already isn’t a good start, and B) if you know that is unlikely to happen, you just broke a bit of trust with yourself. When you say you’re going to schedule or do something, it is crucial for your own self well-being to follow through on that. If you can’t trust yourself to come through, it changes how you view yourself. Start with something small and manageable, like a 20-minute run/walk interval in the morning. Make yourself come through. You have the opportunity to build confidence and trust in yourself and that’s a powerful thing.

Now I exercise mostly because I know I need to for my own mental and physical health, but I truly do love it. I’ve worked out at 4:00 in the morning to fit it into my day. That would sound like punishment if it wasn’t my most precious time to myself. Like I said, the ultimate goal should be to fall in love with it. In all honesty, I also exercise for my patients. I feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite if I want them to be more physically active and I can’t find the time to purposefully exercise 5x a week. I should be one of the most active people they know.

In all things, it’s important to ask why you want to do it. Sometimes if you’re not used to exercise and you just know it’s a good thing to do for your health, you gotta start small. I encourage people to write down a big dream goal, something they always thought would be cool to do (adventure race, half marathon, triathalon, cycling, weight lifting, whatever!). Put it down as a future goal, and then break it down into smaller goals (monthly, weekly, and what it would take to get there). This is something I often do with patients, and I love it because it bridges their rehab into lifelong physical changes.

To summarize:

  • Find your motivation- what do you value about exercise?
  • GOAL set—big overall dream goal, small goals to get there
  • Accountability—hold yourself responsible to just get it done.



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