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How to Form a Regular Exercise Habit

Posted Jun 14 2012 2:48pm

A few weeks back, Tom contacted me suggesting a guest post exchange.

Those are always good fun, and after checking out Tom’s blog, I agreed like a hungry panda faced with a batch of fresh bamboo – Tom writes about nutrition and exercise, two things I know next to nothing about.

He asked me to write about making changes, so after mulling it over for a bit, I decided to cover the most common question I get asked about forming habits – how to exercise more.

Exercise Habit picture

Have you formed the exercise habit yet?

I won’t be talking about the benefits of exercise, or how to best exercise. I’ll leave that up to people who actually know about this topic.

Rather, I will explain how to bridge the gap between theoretically knowing exercise is good for you, and actually doing it.

Why Start The Exercise Habit

In this post, I’m working with three simple assumptions:

  • You are aware of the benefits of exercise (google “benefits of exercise” if you’re not sure)
  • You want to exercise regularly
  • You are not happy with the amount of exercise you currently get

If you didn’t really want to exercise, you wouldn’t be reading this. (Though we’ll tackle kicking up your motivation in a bit.). And if you’re already happy with the level of exercise you get, this post isn’t for you. Just carry on as you are, you handsome you.

So, you’re well aware of how good exercise is for your health and fitness, and how it makes you feel better for several days after each vigorous exercise session. You’ve made numerous attempts in the past at exercising regularly… but you’re not happy with the level of exercise you currently get.

So why set up exercise as a habit?

Because an established habit takes nearly no mental energy to maintain, and mental energy is one of your most precious resources .

Note that I’m talking about mental energy here. It takes plenty of physical energy to go for a half-hour jog, and it always will. But if you form a habit of going jogging every morning for half an hour, soon it becomes so easy and automatic that you won’t even have to think about it.

That’s the definition of a habit. When something takes less mental effort to do than not to do.

The reason you currently don’t get enough exercise is because it’s too much of a hassle. Yes, you exercise from time to time – but you always need to put mental energy into figuring out when and where and how, instead of setting up a firm habit, which takes all that messy, energy-intensive thinking out of it. And exercising always ends up getting pushed out of the way when you have too much other stuff demanding your mental energy.

That’s why today I’ll show you how to form a regular exercise habit. It takes a bit of upfront effort, but once you get your habit established, it will take way less mental energy than exercising willy-nilly as your fancy strikes you. Then you can carry on exercising, and getting all the awesome health and well-being benefits, even as you use your precious mental energy for other things.

How to form a regular exercise habit

This comes down to 5 simple steps.

1. Figure out what exercise habit you want to set up

How exactly do you want to exercise regularly? Make this clear in your mind before you get started.

Again, I’m not an expert on this, but for example, the NHS recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.

So figure out an activity that fulfils your exercise needs. Maybe you like jogging. Or biking. Or swimming. Or dressing in a batman costume, climbing tall buildings and then leaping from them onto other tall buildings. Whatever floats your boat.

Ideally, pick something that you can do regularly, always at the same time of the same day of the week. This makes it much easier to establish as a habit.

Grab a pen and a piece of paper (or open up your favourite word processor) and note down your ideas now. It’s okay, I’ll wait :-) .

2. Kick up your motivation

The second biggest reason why people don’t exercise (after it being too much hassle) is that they don’t have a clear, strong feelings about the benefits of exercise.

Likely, you know on a logical level that exercise is good for you. But do you feel it deep, down emotionally?

In this step, it’s time to bridge the gap between the logical and emotional parts of your mind. Because while your plans often come from your logical mind, motivation always comes from your emotions.

And how do you get yourself motivated? Not with facts and figures. (30% decreased risk of cardiac disease, woo! …So what?). Your mind doesn’t have a strong hardwired response to logic. No, it responds to vivid imagery.

So, close your eyes, and imagine how you will feel after exercising regularly. See the world through your own eyes, and feel the extra energy you will have. How much easier it will be to do physical activities. How you will like the way you look in a mirror.

Whatever it is that most motivates you about exercise, find a way to visualise it, in a way that speaks straight to your emotions. Get yourself all giddy and excited about exercise! This is a fun game to play, and it will get you motivated to make positive changes in your life, too!

After that, it’s time for the flip side of motivation. The proverbial stick of the carrot-and-stick approach.

Take some time to imagine how bad you would feel after not exercising for a while. Close your eyes, and imagine having a hard time getting up out of bed in the morning. Feeling low on energy. Feeling nervous and jittery. Looking at yourself in the mirror, and not liking what you see.

Again, whatever is the mix of images and mental movies that speak to you the most.

Then, when you’re done playing with these and feel all motivated and excited, it’s time to start forming your new exercise habit. So let’s get to that!

By the way, do not skip this step, even if running mental movies in your mind isn’t the sort of thing you would usually do. It’s the most important thing you can do to keep yourself going through the initial stages of forming a habit, before it becomes firmly established.

3. Turn your habit into a clear goal

How do you know that you have completed your exercise habit each day?

If you can’t answer that, tweak the definition of your soon-to-be-habit until you can answer it easily.

“Getting some exercise” isn’t clear and specific enough. “Running for at least 30 minutes” is.

If you’ve ever heard of goalsetting , you know that setting a specific, measurable goal makes you way more like to accomplish it. And that’s exactly what you’re doing here. Setting the goal of exercising regularly.

4. Try it out for 30 days

Now comes a master stroke of genius. Commit to your new exercise habit for a limited time.

Why? Because unlimited commitment is scary. If you intend to exercise like this until the end of your life, that’s one hell of big pill to swallow. You might choked on the idea, and not even get started.

So what to do instead? Like the alcoholics anonymous “one day at a time” approach, commit to exercising for a limited time. 30 days is generally good. Long enough to get you a long way towards forming a habit, yet short enough that it’s not really daunting.

And once the 30 days are up? Honestly evaluate your exercise habit. By then, it will be nearly automatic, and take little mental energy to maintain. You will also already have a clear idea of all the short-term positive changes it made in your life. Then you can decide if you want to keep it up, or switch to a different exercise routine, one that fits your needs better.

5. Start NOW!

And that’s all there is to forming a regular exercise habit.

You might not have the energy to form a full exercise plan right now. That’s okay.

But you are way more likely to actually set up an exercise habit if you get started a little bit immediately. So grab a pen and a piece of paper, or open up your favourite word processor.

Then just jot down a couple of ideas for exercise that would fit in your life. Think of some ways to exercise that you enjoy (or at least don’t hate), that at the same time allow you to get enough physical activity over the course of a week.

And then, when you come back to this when you have plenty of energy (yes, planning is an mentally intensive activity), set up the full plan. Figure out how you will do your exercise, take the time to visualise the scenes that will get you motivated, and then set a day to get started.

And that’s all from me. Exercise ahoy!

About The Author: Vlad Dolezal is an expert in personal development and achievement. For more ways to understand your own mind, and get it to do what you want, check out Vlad Dolezal’s blog, Alive With Passion .

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