How I made regular exercise a consistent habit
It was critical to get exercise to stop feeling optional and more like a boring, non-negotiable maintenance task in order to make room for it in my life.
For most of my adult life, I've had a rough relationship with exercise. When I turned 30, I knew I wanted to make a commitment. Actually committing, though, was another story. In the years since, I mostly tried to willpower my way through, but failed to create any kind of consistency with a daily exercise habit. I’d go through periods of being excited and energized, then something in my life would change or I'd lose interest and have to start all over again.
Through it all, I never actually ✨learned to love it ✨—realistically, I still don’t. But you don't need to love something to know you have to do it. And somehow, in the last few years, I have somehow eked out a consistent habit where I still go, no matter what, even when fun plans come up, even when it's raining, even when I'm hung over, and even when I have run out of gym socks.
How the heck did that happen? Here's how I think I did it:
I decided that this is just a thing I do now.
I recognize how this sounds a lot like I’m saying “simply get up and do it,” and maybe I kind of am. But deciding to change my perspective did work for me. I only needed one small behavior tweak to trick myself into it: I actually put workout times on my Google calendar.
Every calendar event has a real start and end time, an annoying notification, and specifies the “agenda," so I’ll know if I’ll be going to the gym, going for a run, or going to a fitness class.
They are formatted the same as any work meeting, car service appointment, or brunch with a friend. In the morning, when I'm running through my day's agenda, I'll grumble “ugh, I have to go to the gym today” the exact same way I'd grumble about having to go to the dentist later.
When the notification pops up, I do the same “better hurry or I’m gonna be late” hustle that I'd do for a haircut appointment. Even when no one’s waiting to meet me for a workout, all the when/where/what decisions have already been made and I've shown up where I'm supposed to be. I might as well knock it out.
Reminder: I'm an adult. I can can choose not to go to the dentist just as easily as I’d been choosing to not go to the gym. But I still go to the dentist because it's a bullshit, unpleasant thing we adults all have to do. And exercise? Yep, another bullshit thing in the long list of bullshit things that I have to do now as an adult human being.
I made the focus showing up and nothing else.
When I go to my exercise “appointments,” whether they’re at the gym with a trainer, outside for a run, or lifting some weights at home, I’m not actually committed to being in any way good at these things.
Some weeks, I’m not able to schedule as long of time blocks for exercise as I'd like. These are the weeks when I try to make the time I do have count. Other weeks, I may be dealing with some kind of injury, or maybe I’m mentally off my game. Those are the weeks when showing up is the hardest part, so I go out of my way to give myself credit for making it happen at all, even if I couldn’t perform or was lazy and grumpy the whole time.
My measure of success for every workout is only that I attended it. It doesn’t need to be the best, it doesn’t need to be the most difficult, I’m not required to break a sweat. My part of the bargain is that I showed up and put in my time. I can choose what I do with that time without feeling guilty about it.
I found activities that don't hurt really bad for a really long time.
Back when I was in better shape, running medium distances is what I’d do for exercise. My former running route was a 6-mile trail with a whole ton of super-steep hills. But after years of not doing that, that run now hurts (a lot!), it takes all day to complete, and the whole time, I feel bad about myself for not being better at it.
Therefore, I don’t do that anymore.
I’ve tried a few other things and learned, at my current fitness level, weight training doesn’t make me gasp for air constantly for several hours. It’s definitely difficult, but it’s shorter periods of difficulty, with lots of opportunity to rest, pace around little, make exaggerated breathing out noises to nobody in particular, whatever, then repeat. And it fits nicely into any length time slot on my Google Calendar, so I can do the thing and get on with my day.
So, I do that instead.
Find something that doesn’t make you too miserable for too long. Your version of this might be a brisk 15-minute walk around the neighborhood or roller skate dancing for 10 minutes or 3 hours of running uphill. It doesn’t matter where you start or how often you experiment. Try to find a few things that you know won’t make you regret what you’re doing every single minute you’re doing it.
I optimized for what I know about myself instead of trying to be someone else.
The world celebrates early risers. Commercials feature fit people going for that early morning jog. Instagram's all about doing yoga on an expensive-looking patio at 6AM.
Perhaps you are a person who loves to wake up with the sun and get things done right away. ...I’m an angry little gremlin until 9AM.
I’ve always felt a little inferior for not being able to rise and shine, smile during a refreshing morning workout, and then come back sweat-free, ready to eat expensive yogurts and start the day.
But then I remembered this exciting bit of news: NO ONE EVER SAID YOU MUST EXERCISE FIRST THING IN THE MORNING.
I built my exercise habit around what fits my life instead. I prefer exercise in the early evenings. I am slow and stupid in the mornings and much more on top of my shit later in the day, all the way through the night. I don't mind pushing my day around to accommodate that – in fact, it benefits me to do so.
Accept and ignore the fact that Chobani may never make a commercial featuring your weird schedule and body habits. Definitely ignore the people who lecture you about why 5AM is some magical time of day all humans should wake up, or why you need to be intermittent fasting. Just work out when it makes sense for you based on your schedule and your body. Once you get over being perfect, you can be consistent.
I reschedule (never cancel)
Anything from going on vacation to an unexpected houseguest for a couple nights used to be the exact kind of thing that knocked me off track. After whatever brief routine interruption settled down, I'd have to muster up all my willpower once again to rebuild my momentum.
That's because I'd built for a very specific routine, not for reality. In real life, shit is definitely going to come up. You're 100% going to have to move things around sometimes. So, I avoid thinking about workouts tied to specific days or times, which never allows me to use "I only do long runs on Sundays" or "two leg days in a row is stupid" as an excuse to stay on the couch. I protect flexibility so that instead of cancelling/skipping things, I can easily reschedule them for tomorrow or find another open time.
If you make sure there's never a period of time when you don't have your next couple appointments on your calendar, even if they're weeks in advance, you won't lose momentum. (Your dentist even knows this – that's why they have you schedule your next appointment on your way out the door.)
Ultimately, to build an exercise habit, I had to stop thinking about exercise as optional and special, and to instead view it more like a boring, non-negotiable maintenance task that's not even worth talking about (like brushing my teeth, showering, and contributing to my 401k).
Once that happened, I could actually start changing up my workouts or challenging myself in different ways. Now, when try a new workout class or meal plan that I end up hating, I don't get overwhelmed or frustrated. It doesn’t run the risk of killing my enthusiasm or momentum. I always have a few go-to exercise activities in my back pocket to fall back on for my next workout appointment, and I know it’s no biggie to go the gym unprepared and lazy for 4 straight days in a row, as long as I continue to show up.
What’s helped you stay motivated and disciplined to keep yourself healthy? Would love to hear your advice for me on Twitter at @itsmesarahp!