How To Make Exercise A Habit You Stick To
Everyone has days when getting to the gym seems like a mammoth task. Luckily, science can help. Here are our favourite scientifically proven methods for how to make exercise a habit you stick to for life.
The truth is motivation kind of sucks. The idea that you need to get yourself psyched up for every workout is not only untrue, it’s counterproductive. It actually puts a barrier between you and your desired behaviour, in this case working out.
So how can we use science to either get motivated or make motivation irrelevant? What we’re really talking about is forming good habits – and there are four principles to apply.
How to make exercise a habit:
- 1. Make It Obvious
- 2. Make It Attractive
- 3. Make It Easy
- 4. Make It Satisfying
If you can do those four things, your desired action is very likely to become a habit. Let’s go through them one by one.
Make It Obvious
Your environment is hugely influential on your behaviours, in ways you don’t realise. The key is, to quote James Clear the author of Atomic Habits, to be “the designer of your environment, not the consumer.”
If the goal is to reduce friction between you and the habit of exercise. If you’ve got exercise equipment, keep it somewhere prominent rather than gathering dust in the corner.
Another way to make it obvious is to set a specific time and place for your workout. So not “I will train three times this week,” but instead “I will train at X place at X time on X date.” Put it in your diary, write it down, say it out loud. Of course, the ultimate form of this is scheduling a personal training session, but scheduling one with yourself is always better than a vague plan.
By the way, saying your habit out loud is one of those things that sounds stupid but does actually increase your likelihood of following through. You can use it against a bad habit too, for example, if you want to avoid eating sugary snacks and say to yourself “I’m about to eat a bag of sweets that will hurt my progress and make me unhappy,” you actually help motivate you to stay the course and not eat rubbish.
The final way to make your new habit obvious is to use “habit stacking.” You already have habits. A quick way to build a new one is to “stack” it on an old one.
After I drink my coffee I will meditate for ten minutes. After I make breakfast I’ll do twenty minutes on the bike. The more you think about it the more ways you can stack habits and make them part of your life.
Make It Attractive
We’ve just mentioned habit stacking. To make that even more effective, place a reward after your desire behaviour.
So the sequence becomes, after (current habit) I will (desired habit), then I will (thing I want). For example, after I make coffee I will do a 2k jog before reading some of my book.
We can use rewards in all sorts of ways. Buying a particular outfit when you’ve hit a weight loss target in another example. Our minds are geared up to seek please so why not use it to our advantage?
Make It Easy
It’s important to reduce friction associated with good habits, making them as easy as possible to stick to. Think strategically. The gym near your home might look good but if you spend more time at work, or tend to get distracted at home, then the one near work is probably your best bet.
Another way to make habits easier and more motivating is to make them part of your identity. If a health goal of yours is to stop drinking then replacing phrases like “no thanks I’m trying to stop drinking” with “no thanks I don’t drink,” is actually very effective. Thinking of yourself as person who lifts weights rather than someone trying to get fit are two very different states.
Your behaviour reflects the person you believe you are. Habits offer evidence of your identity. So if you want to be healthy, the more evidence you can give yourself that you’re a person who works out and eats well, the easier it will be. Eventually, you’re no longer chasing habits but behaving congruently with who you are.
Make It Satisfying
Working out itself may be tough, painful and you won’t always want to do it. If you can make the process satisfying it will be far more motivating.
This comes down largely to having goals, but many people set bad or unhelpful goals.
Good goals should be “process goals” not “outcome goals.”
An outcome goal is “I want to lose 5kg.”
A process goal is “I want to work out three times a week and not drink alcohol Sunday to Friday”
As you can see, one is a nice vague idea, the other is a clear action plan that gives you little “wins” along the way, particularly if you record them. There are many apps you can use to track booze-free days and workout days, and it becomes incredibly satisfying to see those “good” days rack up. That’s what we mean by “little wins.” If your goal is three workouts this week and you just worked out, you get a satisfying little rush of having hit your target for the day. When it’s just a vague idea of eventual weight loss, there’s no concrete way to get that little win and therefore less satisfaction.
Using just one of these techniques should help with motivation and habit building. Using all four should make you unstoppable.
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