A Compact Guide to Creating the Fitness Habit

Post written by Leo Babauta.

A new year, a new slate of resolutions.

Perhaps the biggest resolution at New Year’s is to get fit — start exercising, start eating right, and all that jazz.

But resolutions never last. As you might already know, I’m not a fan of resolutions.

Instead of creating a list of resolutions this year, create a new habit.

Habits last, and they lead to long-term fitness (and more). They require more patience, but they are worth the wait.

As some of you know, fitness habits are what started me along the path to changing my life. I quit smoking, started running. Then I started eating healthier, became vegetarian (now vegan), quit the junk food addiction, started doing other types of workouts (bodyweight, weights, Crossfit, anything that was fun).

And six years later, I’m nearly 39 years old and in the best shape of my life. I have less bodyfat than any time since high school, more muscle than ever in my life, and I can run and hike and play longer than anytime in the history of Leo. That’s not to brag, but to show you what can be done with some simple fitness habits.

Reshaping Through Habits

The appealing thing about many fitness programs is that they promise quick results. You see testimonials from people who have gone through the program and lost 30 lbs. and gain a washboard stomach in just 4 weeks!

That’s all complete crap.

First, most people won’t achieve those results. Second, and more importantly, if you do get quick results, you’ll reverse those results very quickly … because you haven’t created new habits. You’ve just done something intense and unsustainable for a short period of time. That’s nearly worthless.

You should be focused on long-term results, and more importantly on a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle starts with changing your habits and ends with long-term results.

Changing habits takes time. I recommend one habit at a time, and give yourself about a month per habit. That takes patience, but you shouldn’t try to see amazing results in just 30 days. You should enjoy your new lifestyle, which will be an amazing result in itself that you can achieve immediately. In a matter of months and years, your body and health will change too.

Let’s say you change one habit at a time, one per month or so. You’ll have 12 new habits every year. Even if you only formed 6 habits that stuck and that you loved, you’d be amazed at what kind of changes those 6 habits would create in your life and fitness. If you did 6 habits a year for three years, you’d be transformed.

If you don’t have the patience to change one habit at a time, or focus on enjoying your new habits rather than getting quick results, you should stop reading now.

Which Habits to Choose

So let’s say you’re just starting out … what habit should you start with?

My favorite habit is daily exercise, but if you’re looking to lose weight probably the most important habits relate to eating.

In truth, which habit you choose first matters very little in the long run. You will be changing many little habits over the course of the next few years, and the order of those habits is unimportant. What matters is that you start.

Here are some habits that I’d start with, if you haven’t created them yet:

I’ve found that losing weight is simple: eat lots of veggies and plant or lean protein, reduce calories, do some kind of cardio, lift some weights to preserve muscle.

Gaining muscle is also fairly simple: eat lots of veggies and plant or lean protein, increase calories, do some kind of cardio to preserve heart health, lift heavy weights to grow muscle.

The weights should be compound lifts and heavy, the cardio should be enjoyable. Getting “toned”, btw, is just gaining muscle and losing the fat that covers the muscle, whether you’re a man or woman.

Forming the Habit

These are my top principles for forming habits. If you’ve read my writings on habits before, this won’t be new to you, but often it’s good to review these principles for things you’ve missed:

  1. Make it social. This is an incredibly powerful too. I highly, highly recommend Fitocracy to everyone, as it’s a way to make exercise fun and social (invite code: ZENHABITS). It turns fitness into a game, and you log your exercises, get points, encourage others, complete fitness quests, get props for workouts you’ve done. Other great ways to make your habit change social: report on your daily progress to friends and family through Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or email, find a workout partner, get a coach, join a running group, join online fitness forums, join a class.
  2. Do one habit at a time only. People often skip this one because they think they are different than everyone else, but I’ve found this to be extremely effective. You increase your odds of success with just one habit at a time, for many reasons: habits are hard to form because they require lots of focus and energy, having many habits means you’re spreading yourself too thin, and if you can’t commit to one habit at a time, you’re not fully committed.
  3. Make it your top priority. People often put off fitness and diet stuff because they’re too busy, too tired, to stressed out by big projects or the holidays, etc. But in my experience, those are great reasons you *should* be exercising. So make your new diet or exercise habit one of your absolute top priorities for the day. If you don’t have time, you need to make time.
  4. Enjoy the habit. This is extremely important, and most people ignore it. If the habit is fun, you will stick with it longer. And even better, if you are enjoying it, you immediately win. You don’t need to wait for a bunch of pounds lost or other results — you get instant results because you’re enjoying the change. I find activities I enjoy, I join challenges or races to make exercise fun, I enjoy a conversation with a friend during a run, I eat healthy foods that are delicious (berries — yum!) and focus on savoring those foods. Focus on the enjoyment, and don’t make the habit change a big sacrifice.

Final Recommendations

Many people set fitness goals for the year. I’ve done it myself, but lately I’ve found that I can get fit without them. For one thing, when you set goals, they are often arbitrary, and so you are spending all your effort working towards a basically meaningless number. And then if you don’t achieve it, you feel like you failed, even if the number was arbitrary to start with.

You can create habits without goals — I define goals as a predefined outcome that you’re striving for, not activities that you just want to do. So is creating a habit a goal? It can be, or you can approach it with the attitude of “it doesn’t matter what the outcome of this habit change is, but I want to enjoy the change as I do it”.

So enjoy the habit change, in the moment, and don’t worry what the outcome of the activity is. The outcome matters very little, if you enjoy the journey.

The journey to fitness can have an infinite number of paths, and setting your path in advance by setting goals is limiting. Allow yourself to change course on a whim, without guilt of not achieving a goal, and you’ll find new paths you’d never have anticipated when you set out.

But the most important step of the journey is the first one. After that, the most important step is the one you’re presently taking. So take that step, and enjoy it.