zen habits : breathe

The Exercise Habit Overview

By Leo Babauta

Exercise is one of those habits that people love to put off. For some, it’s daunting and difficult, for others it’s not that bad but something they seem to keep putting off.

The solution to forming the exercise habit is simpler than you might think, however.

Start small, enjoy the habit, make it social. Put as much accountability as you can into the habit change.

And one important change of perspective: this isn’t a change you’re making to lose weight or gain muscle or “get toned” … you’re forming a simple habit. It’s like making a habit out of brushing your teeth, or taking a shower, or cutting your nails. You have to do it regularly to take care of yourself, or things start to get a bit unhealthy.

Let’s acknowledge that some of you have a decent exercise habit already formed, or at least have done it regularly enough over the last couple years that you’re not in bad shape. For you, we’ll look at some advanced options.

Before we get to the plan, let’s do an overview of why to form the habit, and how to do it … then let’s look at our plan for this month.

Why Form the Exercise Habit

If you’ve been putting off exercise for a long time, or just aren’t that motivated to form the habit, let’s talk for a moment about the Why.

Exercise has been a part of my life for the past six years or so, but before that, I rarely did anything resembling exercise. I tried, sporadically, but could never make it stick. It always felt better to relax after a long work day, and weekends were for more relaxing because “I deserved it”.

Well, of course if you put it that way, you won’t exercise. If exercise is punishment and relaxing is your reward, which would you rather do? Let’s look at it a different way, now that I know a bit more and have made regular exercise a part of my life:

Forming that habit isn’t as difficult as you might think. If you think it’s difficult, that’s probably because you 1) made it too difficult in past attempts, 2) didn’t focus on the enjoyable aspects of it, 3) didn’t do it socially, which can be a lot of fun, 4) didn’t have enough accountability and so quit often, feeling bad about yourself when you did.

Let’s look at a better way.

How to Make the Exercise Habit Stick

There are four elements we’re going to apply here — actually the last three all overlap but it’s good to consider them separately because they all matter.

  1. Make it easy. If you don’t regularly exercise, your body needs to be eased into shape. You can’t get into shape overnight — it takes weeks and months. It’s not a quick result thing, it’s a process and a lifestyle. You’re not in it for this month, but for life! So ease into it. Make it easy to form that habit by starting small and easy. When I started running, I ran for 5-7 minutes the first few times. Soon I was running 10 minutes, then 12. A year later, a marathon. You can walk at first, then add some running in. Or do some other activity altogether, but start small with whatever you do. Please do not ignore this suggestion — if you do, exercise will be a very tough habit to form. You might do well for a week or even two, but sticking to it for life is what matters most.
  2. Make it enjoyable. Exercise is not punishment, difficult, painful, or grueling. If you do it right, exercise can be enjoyable, even incredibly fun. This is what you need to focus on if you want it to stick. For example, play a sport that you like (or learn a new one). Or use walking as your time for relaxation and contemplation. Walk or run or bike somewhere with a beautiful view, and enjoy nature. Listen to some kick-ass music as you work out. Listen to some audiobooks. Go for a walk or run with a friend, and have some fun conversation. Do bootcamp-style workouts with a group of friends. Play sports or games outside with your kids. Challenge your spouse to do a pushup or burpee challenge with you. There are loads of ways to make exercise enjoyable (the next item is a big part of it).
  3. Make it social. Many people ignore the social aspect of exercise, maybe because they think it’s not necessary. And it’s not, except if you’re having a hard time forming the habit, making it social can work wonders. It does two things: it makes it more fun (the previous item) and it gives you accountability (the next item). So making it social does two things at once. I’ve already mentioned some social exercise ideas, but a few others: take a class, join a team, join a running club, get a workout partner (or several), get friends at work to exercise with you, create challenges for coworkers or family or friends (or all of them!). That’s just the start — there are thousands of possibilities.
  4. Turn up the accountability. When you have accountability, you are more motivated to do the habit. Without accountability, when it’s time to do the habit and you don’t feel like it, you can easily give up. But when you know you have someone — or a group of someones — to report back to, you will have that extra push you need to get the habit done. How do you increase accountability? There’s all kinds of levels, from telling one person about it, to making a promise with consequences, to committing publicly on a blog or Facebook, to doing a challenge with a bunch of other people. I used to have my sister as a running partner (making running social), and knowing she was out there in the dark waiting for me to meet her would get me out of bed at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. Otherwise, I would have gone back to bed. Make it social, and report back to the person or group daily.

If you can do those four things, you win.

Now let’s take a look at the Exercise Habit Plan.

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