Exercising regularly is surely one of the most commonly made New Year’s resolutions. And surely one of the most commonly broken. Gyms around the world fill up with freshly-minted members in January . . . who are almost all gone by February.
If you’ve resolved and failed, and resolved and failed to start working out consistently, you know it can be a really discouraging cycle. Cementing the exercise habit can seem like an impossible task.
But it truly doesn’t have to be, as long you take the right approach. Below we share 10 key tactics that will help you make exercise an unbreakable habit.
#1: Do something you enjoy doing.
I’ve been barbell training for the past two years, and during that time I’ve missed just a handful of workouts, and only when stricken with an extreme illness (I still work out if I’m just a little sick). I’ve trained on Thanksgiving. I’ve trained on Christmas. I’ve trained on vacation. But I don’t have this streak going because I’m super dedicated and disciplined and force myself to work out even when I don’t want to.
I merely enjoy barbell training. A lot! I don’t work out so regularly because I’m a hard-as-nails badass, but because I want to. Because I like it.
When it comes to exercise, people tend to think that for it to work, it has to be unpleasant. They think exercise is like eating Brussels sprouts; you may not like the taste, but you’ve got to get ‘em down because they’re good for you. Yet while these folks can flog themselves to exercise for a few weeks or even a few months out of a sense of dour obedience, they’re ultimately kicking against the pricks. Eventually, their dislike for their chosen regimen overpowers their will, and they stop working out altogether.
It’s true that to be effective all exercise will involve some discomfort. And it’s true that certain kinds of exercise are more or less effective than others. But all exercise is good for you, any exercise is better than none, and if you choose the right form of it — the form that’s right for you — it can in fact hurt so good and be a source of great pleasure.
Lots of people will say you should do CrossFit; that you should run; that you should do barbell training. These people mean well. They likely enjoy those activities and have gotten results from them and want you to experience the same benefit. But if you don’t like what they think you “should” be doing, you’re not going to do it.
Instead of should-ing on yourself by exercising the way some person or some magazine told you to, find something that you enjoy doing. This will take some time and experimentation. If you don’t like road running, try trail running. If you don’t like running at all, try rucking. If you don’t like lifting weights, try a bodyweight program. If you don’t like working out by yourself, try joining a CrossFit class, or a martial arts school, or a team sport.
I spent nearly ten years begrudgingly doing cardio-heavy and CrossFit-like workout programs before I discovered my love for barbell training. I recently found that I also enjoy rucking and MovNat as well, so that’s part of my exercise routine, too. Exercise is now something I look forward to — it in fact feels like one of the best parts of my life; consequently, it would take more discipline for me not to do a workout than to do one!
Bottom line: if you want to make exercise a habit, start off by picking an activity you enjoy. If you do that, you’ll be 90% there to becoming a man who exercises religiously.
#2: Put your training schedule on your calendar.
Besides picking an activity that they don’t enjoy doing, the other thing that keeps people from regularly exercising is not setting aside time for it on their calendar. For these folks, exercise is one of those things that they’ll get to . . . if they have time for it. But, of course, they never do, because something else always comes up.
If you want time to exercise, you have to make time for it. And the best way to do that is to schedule your workouts on your calendar and treat them like doctor’s appointments. Just as you’d tell someone you were busy if they wanted to do something at the same time you were scheduled to see a doc, you’re going to inform people you’re busy when they ask you to do something during your workout “appointment.”
#3: Experiment to find the workout time that’s best for you.
At what time should you schedule your workout “appointments”? That’s up to you.
Many people find that it’s best to exercise first thing in the morning; that way, when they get tired and stressed, or “urgent” to-do’s pile-up as the day goes on, their workout doesn’t end up getting pushed off the schedule. When you put the big rocks in first, all the small rocks can fit too.
However, that’s not an inviolable rule for everyone. Everybody’s got different work/life schedules and different rhythms to their daily energy and motivation. Maybe you’ll love working out at lunchtime or at night. You’ll never know unless you try. Experiment with different options and see what works best for you.
#4: Remove obstacles with a pre-workout checklist.
When I interviewed bodyweight training coach Anthony Arvanitakis for the podcast, he told me that one thing he does to ritualize his workouts is to use a pre-workout checklist. His checklist includes making sure his phone is charged so it won’t quit playing music in the middle of his workout, putting the phone in airplane mode so calls and texts won’t create distractions, filling up his water bottle, preparing equipment in his gym so nothing’s missing and everything’s right at hand, and changing into certain workout clothes.
Arvanitakis keeps this checklist on an index card and reviews it each day, as he says he finds doing so “comforting.” As he observes, “The most difficult part in a workout is getting started,” and “Having that list gets you in the flow.” It eliminates decision-making and friction, so there’s less standing in the way of you getting your sweat on.
Listen to my podcast with Anthony about making exercise a habit:
#5: Have clothes specifically dedicated to working out.
Another thing Arvanitakis recommends is having sets of clothes you specifically designate as your workout clothes. He thinks of his workout gear as his “uniform” and feels that donning it helps him get in the mindset to exercise.
When you put on clothes you don’t associate with anything other than exercise, this “uniform” does indeed help you get into workout mode and feel ready to go out to “battle” at the gym.
#6: Have a plan for your workout.
Don’t just plan your pre-workout ritual, but know exactly what you’ll be doing once you hit the gym as well.
When most people take a first stab at working out, they just show up at the gym and do whatever exercise the gym spirits move them to do. A few bicep curls here, maybe some medicine ball action, followed by some leg presses. Thirty minutes after aimlessly wandering around the gym, they get bored and hit the sauna. After a few weeks of unproductive “workouts” like that, and unsurprisingly seeing no results, they stop going altogether.
Uncertainty is a big motivation killer. It causes paralysis by analysis so you end up doing nothing. And when you do nothing, your body and health don’t change. And when your body and health don’t change, you lose motivation to exercise.
To avoid this fate, have a workout plan for yourself before you head over to the gym. Know exactly which exercises you’re going to do and for how many sets and reps. Write your plan down, bring it with you to the gym, and refer to it frequently throughout your session so you stick to it. If you’re running, have a weekly running plan for yourself so you know that you’ll be working on speed one day and endurance another.
You’d be surprised at how much having a plan can keep you motivated to work out. It removes motivation-sapping uncertainty and ensures you actually see motivation-boosting results.
Not sure what your workout plan should be? I’d highly recommend not trying to come up with it willy-nilly on your own, but instead committing to a set program that’s been designed by experts. Here’s a list of programs I recommend which suit a variety of fitness goals. I, of course, heartily suggest Starting Strength above all, but if that’s not your thing, that’s fine. Just pick a plan you think you’ll enjoy, and then work that plan.
#7: Just get moving, even when you don’t feel like it.
As mentioned above, the hardest part of working out for a lot of folks is simply getting started. Oftentimes, you just don’t feel like exercising. You don’t feel like getting out of bed or off the comfy couch. You don’t feel like leaving the house. The pull of inertia is strong.
Fortunately, one of the great truisms of life, is that if you take action without feeling like it, the feelings will follow. If you don’t feel like working out, but get after it anyway, you’ll almost always get into the flow and start to enjoy it.
Of course, this sets up a catch-22: you’ll feel like working out if you start working out, but how do you start if you don’t feel like it?
Try making a deal with yourself. Decide that all you have to do is go to the gym and work out for 10 minutes; if after 10 minutes you don’t want to do any more, then you can go home. It’s an easy deal to commit to. Of course, what happens 9 times out of 10 is that once you’re at the gym, and moving your body, you get into an exercise-positive mindset and want to continue on and do a full workout.
#8: Aim for consistency in frequency, rather than consistently A+ workouts.
A key to making something a habit is putting together a chain of successes, which is, at least at first, rarely or never broken. To lay down a new groove in your life, you’ve got to etch away at it without interruption.
So always err on the side of doing something, even when circumstances prevent you from doing a “perfect” workout. Feeling just a little sick? Still work out, but go a little easier. Have a crazy busy day? Still work out, but make it a little shorter. Traveling? Still work out, even if you have to improvise with the equipment available in the hotel gym. Sluggish and grouchy and can’t get into the mood to exercise even after you’ve tried? Still move, however tepidly, through your planned workout.
Even if 9 times out of 10 when you start a workout without feeling like it, you end up getting into it, there’s still that one time where you don’t. Try to at least go through the motions anyway. My strength coach Matt Reynolds calls these times “blue collar days.” You’ve just got to put on your hardhat, put on your coveralls, and do the work. You simply punch the clock and get the job done. You don’t clock out having made big gains with your physique, but that’s okay — you still strengthened the “muscle” of your exercise habit.
Of course, listen to your body (and be sure you’re doing recovery right), but also don’t take an all-or-nothing approach to your workouts. When conditions aren’t perfect, it’s better to continue the habit chain, and do something, than to decide it’s all a wash and do nothing at all.
When it comes to habit formation, consistency is king.
#9: Exercise for something.
Motivation research shows that when we have a clear purpose for a task, we’re more likely to do that task regularly. So have a why for your workouts. It could be something high-minded like being ready for emergencies or living a long time for your kids and/or grandkids, but it could also be something vain like just wanting to look good with your shirt off. Whatever it is, write it down and refer to it every day. When you don’t feel like going to the gym, read your purpose to remind yourself of why you’re trying to exercise regularly.
For me, competitions serve as a big motivator for training. Signing up for a barbell meet gives me something very concrete and date-specific to train for, and knowing that I will be performing my lifts in front of lots of people lights a fire under my rear to keep up my training.
If you’re looking to run more this year, sign yourself up for a 5K or an obstacle race a few months from now. Your goal might not be to win the race, but just not to look like an out-of-shape schlub hoofing through the course like an asthmatic water buffalo. Shame is a powerful motivator.
#10: Get accountability.
Some people find it useful to get an accountability partner for their workouts. This could be a personal trainer or a coach, or it could be a friend. Getting a barbell coach was a game changer for me and my training. Besides the feedback on my lifts, the accountability factor has played a huge role in my compliance with the programming. I don’t want to let my coach down by wussing out on a session. Again, shame can be a powerful motivator.
If you want to take the accountability up a level, then put some stakes on the line. Paying for a coach or trainer is one way to do this. Knowing that you’re putting your money in a metaphorical paper shredder every time you miss a session can motivate you not to miss a workout. Join The Strenuous Life, where you’ll have to do 60 minutes of physical activity on most days for 12 weeks to complete the TSL Challenge. Or use something like stickK to set up a wager with a friend that says if you miss more than two workouts in a row, you have to pay him or even some organization you detest a certain amount of money. The amount needs to be large enough so that it hurts if you fail to meet your end of the bargain.
Making exercise a habit doesn’t need to be hard. Find something you enjoy, plan for it, prioritize it, and point it towards a purpose. Keep adding one link after another to the chain of your new habit, and soon you’ll find yourself becoming the kind of man who finds it difficult not to exercise.
Last updated: January 3, 2018