Thanks, Science: Here's How To Actually Stick To Your Workout Routine

Thanks, Science: Here's How To Actually Stick To Your Workout Routine Hero Image
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Why are good exercise habits challenging to create? It seems so easy to adopt unhealthy habits, right? We even call it "falling into" bad habits, as though it took no more effort than leaning forward and letting go. So why are the good habits so difficult to form?

Habit development is all the rage these days, and it seems like everyone has a different opinion on them. Let’s boil down the best habit advice into the following nine mistakes that you might be making when trying to form new exercise habits:

1. Relying on willpower alone.

Willpower is like energy. It ebbs and flows and can become depleted with use. Relying on willpower can be helpful during the initial push to begin an exercise program, but counting on it to see you through the long term is a mistake.

Instead, when designing your new exercise plan, set up supports, schedules, and positive incentives to change behavior so that you don’t veer off track when your willpower is sagging. For example, set an appointment with an exercise partner or personal trainer that will hold you a little more accountable.

You can come up with your own accountability ideas by asking yourself this: "What is my plan on days when I don’t feel like exercising?" Your willpower will fluctuate, so be prepared.

2. Superman thinking.

Attempting giant leaps in a single bound is another common error we make when approaching fitness goals. This is a surefire way to feel exhausted and defeated and causes us to give up before we even start.

According to Stanford researcher BJ Fogg, the thought of tackling something like an hour of exercise each day can be overwhelming when motivation is low. The solution? Make your task so easy to do that you don’t even need motivation to do it.

If an hour a day is overwhelming, start with just five minutes or a single push-up—anything you can actually accomplish and celebrate. There are even ways to get exercise in without disrupting your existing routine at all.

3. Overlooking your environment.

When changing habits, you need to be aware of just how much your environment—the physical surroundings, the people, even your own attitude—shapes behavior. You can harness this power by surrounding yourself with people, things, and thoughts that encourage and inspire you.

A positive context for your desired change by way of supportive inner dialogue and the reward of improved health versus punishment and self-reproach will lead to lasting results. Establishing a healthy, positive environment—both inner and outer—around a new exercise plan will also support you during those times when willpower is not enough.

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4. Struggling with old habits instead of creating new ones.

Fighting against old, ingrained habits and behaviors can be difficult and discouraging. Applying a time-tested principle from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), focus on what you do want instead of what you don’t want. This will move you from a place of avoidance to one of action. Old, unwanted habits have a better chance of falling away when they are crowded out by new behaviors.

For example, when you think, "I don’t want to be lazy anymore," ask yourself, "Instead of lazy, what would I rather be?" Focus on what you want, then drill down to the specific behaviors you need to do to get it.

5. Underestimating the power of triggers.

Triggers are cues in our daily lives that lead to automatic behavioral responses. When your cellphone rings or you see a red stoplight, your response doesn’t require forethought. You also have certain hardwired routines in your day that act as triggers for next steps, such as waking up and brushing your teeth or putting on your running shoes and tying the laces.

In NLP, the process of pairing a response with a chosen trigger is known as "anchoring" and can be used deliberately to establish a new behavior. Your exercise habit can get a free ride by piggy-backing it onto one of the many triggers and routines already present in your day!

For example, choose the specific time each day you plan to exercise, like immediately after brushing your teeth or as soon as you close your laptop at the end of the day.

6. Thinking information will automatically lead to action.

We may have read the books, followed the blogs, and know all the reasons exercise and healthy habits are good for us. We know we should be exercising and eating well, so why don’t we? Armed with all the right information, why do so many of us fall into self-sabotage and give up before we get started?

We are emotional beings, and rationality only goes so far. We’re also creatures of comfort. When something threatens our familiar routines, even when that something is good for us, we have a natural tendency to resist and stay in our comfort zone.

So identify the comfort zone most likely to get in the way of your exercise goals and decide to break free of it. You can do it!

7. Setting abstract goals.

Many of us begin with the very fuzzy (and overwhelming) goal of "getting in shape." But what does that even mean, how do you do it, and how do you check this one off your to-do list each day? You can’t.

If you can’t describe exactly what to do and you can’t scratch it off your to-do list at the end of the day, it doesn’t belong in your plan. Instead, define your goals with small, concrete activities and steps like "walk for 15 minutes today" or "do 10 sit-ups before bed."

8. Thinking too far ahead.

Imagine you’re a coffee drinker and someone told you to give up coffee for the rest of your life. You’d probably have a meltdown. Now, imagine skipping your morning coffee for one day. A little better, right?

The same principle holds for any change you wish to make. Choose small, finite periods of time for your fitness goals that you know are doable and don’t fill you with dread. You can renew and extend them as you build confidence. For example, commit to exercising today. That’s it. Don’t worry about tomorrow as long as your calendar says it’s today!

9. Believing it's too difficult.

Like many of these common mistakes, this one is all about psyching yourself out. If you believe creating an exercise habit is difficult, if you face the fitness lifestyle as though you were facing a firing squad, if you moan about how horrible it’s going to be to all your friends, it will feel like punishment.

When your attitude toward exercise dips, ask yourself, "What do I believe right now?" Once you’re aware, you’ll be surprised at how easy it might be to dismiss those thoughts. Take charge of your beliefs.

Having a positive attitude, avoiding the common pitfalls, and making use of the tools and processes above means creating new and healthy fitness habits can be easy, rewarding, and maybe even a little bit fun.


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