Do a quick internet search and you can find hundreds of fitness programs, full of specific instruction on which exercises to do, how to perform them, how many sets and reps you should do for each exercise, etc. The reality is that to get results from any of those programs you’ll need to follow them regularly over time. Unfortunately many people struggle to stick with consistent exercise at all. If you can’t stick to a program, the details of that program don’t matter. That’s why it’s so vital to make exercise an automatic part of your lifestyle – it needs to be a habit. Building healthy habits should be the first thing you focus on when you decide to start exercising.
Habits are incredibly important, they influence who you are and what you do. If you want to be fitter and healthier, you have to adjust your mindset to think the way a fit person does, and you have to adopt the habits of a fit person. That’s a person who thinks about exercise the same way they think about showering or brushing their teeth: as just another part of their daily routine. If they didn’t work out, something would be missing from their day. That’s the kind of mindset you need to form, and it’s very possible to achieve.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”
How Do You Make Something a Habit?
You build a habit by repeatedly performing a specific behavior until it becomes automatic. In other words, you practice until that behavior becomes part of your routine and doesn’t need to be planned for.
How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?
A study by Lally et al., (2010) had 82 participants choose an eating, drinking, or exercise habit and asked them to repeat it daily. Participants weren’t provided with any external rewards or motivation for performing the behavior. On average, it took 66 days for those participants to make their chosen behavior automatic, with the range being 18 to 254 days for a habit to form.
Tips for Building Habits
Building habits isn’t easy. In the study described above, about half of the participants didn’t repeat their behavior often enough to successfully form a habit. You may have tried and failed at habit-building in the past. I know I have. So how can you increase your chances of success? Here are some tips and ideas:
For each tip, I’ve included an example of how to apply it for a goal of completing a 5km run.
Make An Action Plan: They say failing to plan ahead is planning to fail. Things get in the way, motivation comes and goes… If you don’t have a solid action plan in place, you’ll find it really difficult to build your habits.
Brainstorm ways to fit exercise into your daily routine. Can you ask your spouse or family member to pick up your kids from school two days per week so you can go to the gym after work? Can you fit a 30 minute workout in on your lunch break? Can you do short workouts during the week and a longer one on the weekend?
You may have to move things around or ask for help, but there’s always a way to make time. You also need to plan what you will do if something comes up and alters your original plan. Spend some time and effort on this and write down your daily plans and backup plans in detail.
5km Example: In your planning session, you decide that your spouse can take the kids to school on Tuesday and Thursday morning so you have time to run before work, and you have some free time on Saturday mornings. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, you will pick out your clothes, prepare your breakfast (there are many breakfast options that you can prepare ahead of time) and pack your lunch for the next day to save time in the morning. You also make backup plans – if you oversleep one morning, you can run before dinner. If the weather is bad one day, run the next day or go to the gym and run on a treadmill instead of outside.
Change Your Environment: Your environment (the things you do and see every day and the people you interact with) makes a big difference in your behavior. Make it as easy and convenient for yourself to stick to your plan as possible. If you’re sure that you’ll never be able to get to the gym, learn how to work out at home. Tell your family or friends about your workout plans so they can help and support you. Surround yourself with other exercisers. Learn more about fitness. Place motivating reminders around your home or office. Pack your gym bag the night before and put it next to your front door. Write your scheduled workouts on a calendar that you look at often. Do whatever you can to create an encouraging and supportive environment for yourself.
5km Example: Put your running clothes out where you’ll see them in the morning, and put your running shoes and headphones next to the front door. Hang motivational pictures or messages on your fridge or at your desk at work. Join a running group or ask a friend to run with you.
Tie Your New Habit to an Existing One: Everyone has habits that are already automatic: brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, watching a certain tv show, dropping the kids off at school, taking the dog for a walk, etc. Those are behaviors that you perform regularly, without having to plan for them. You can use those behaviors as cues to help form your new habit. In the Lally study, for example, participants were asked to perform their chosen behavior in response to a cue, such as “eating a piece of fruit with lunch”, “running for 15 minutes before dinner”. Those cues were an activity that the participant would be doing anyway. You could plan to go to the gym after work, or do squats during the 6 o’clock news show you watch every evening. Combining a new habit with an existing one will make it easier for you to perform the new behavior.
5km Example: Let’s say your morning routine consists of showering, preparing and eating breakfast, getting dressed, brushing your teeth, packing your lunch, locking up the house, taking the kids to school, and going to work. You should incorporate your run into your usual morning activities. Since you’ve already prepared breakfast and packed your lunch the night before and your spouse will be taking the kids to school, you could: eat breakfast, get dressed for running, brush your teeth, go for your run, shower, get dressed for work, lock up the house, and go to work. You’ve just rearranged your normal routine a little and incorporated running into a series of behaviors you would have performed anyway.
Focus On the Process, Not the Outcome: There are generally two types of goals: outcome goals and process goals. Outcome goals are what you want to achieve through your exercise habits, and process goals are the small, specific behaviors you perform to reach your outcome goal. An outcome goal could be to lose 10 pounds, and the process goals associated with that outcome goal could be to exercise 3 times per week, performing cardio exercise twice per week and resistance training once per week. Too many people focus only on the outcome of their behavior, but the process is what’s really important. Focus on each individual behavior and making it a part of your daily routine. If you can do that, results will follow.
5km Example: Your goal is to run 5km, but the process that will get you there is to make running a habit, build up to three runs a week, and slowly increase your distance in each run. Focus on those processes, and you will achieve your overall goal.
Start Very Easy and Make Small, Incremental Improvements: You’re not likely to be successful if you try to overhaul your whole lifestyle at once. It’s important to make small, realistic changes and build on them over time. If you’re currently not exercising at all but you found a great program that requires you to work out for an hour a day, 5 days per week, don’t try to jump straight into the full program. You’re more likely to be successful if you start with a 20 minute workout once a week. Once that behavior is automatic, add a second weekly workout. Keep building on your success until you’re regularly working out 5 times per week, then start increasing the length of each workout.
5km Example: If you’ve never run before, start by making it a habit to run for just a few minutes, one day per week. Start with 10 minutes; run for as long as you can, then walk until you’re ready to run again. Use your phone to record how long you ran and walked each time. Next time, try to run for just 30 seconds longer before stopping to walk, and walk for 30 seconds less before running again. Repeat that process until you can run for 10 minutes continuously. Then add a second weekly run and practice until you have formed a habit of running twice a week. Then add a third run. Next, try to run for 1 extra minute each time until you reach your 5km goal. Be patient and make sure each behavior is automatic before trying to make another improvement.
Don’t Expect Perfection: Let’s go back to that 5 workout-per-week program. Going from not working out at all to exercising 5 times per week can be overwhelming, and many people think: maybe this isn’t the right program for me. They find another program, but that one requires too much equipment. The next one is also too demanding. This can go on forever. Don’t get bogged down in the details or expect that you have to perform each and every workout exactly as described. Just start somewhere and aim to improve.
Also remember that every little bit counts. If one day you don’t have time for your full workout, just do one exercise. If you don’t have time for your usual 30 minute run, run for just 5 minutes. If you completely miss a workout, forgive yourself and move on. You’re going to stumble every now and then, and that’s ok. Start trying again the next day.
In the Lally study, the researchers found that missing one day of the target behavior didn’t have a long-term detrimental effect on habit formation, as long as the participants started the behavior again the next day. Participants who were successful at forming habits missed a day every once in a while, the important thing is that they bounced back.
5km Example: You don’t have to go from not running at all to 3 runs per week all at once, and you don’t have to hit a certain distance or time in every run. If one day you don’t have time for your usual run, just do half of it. The act of putting on your running shoes and getting out there will help form that habit, even if you don’t complete a full run. If you miss a run, try again the next day. Remember that this is a long-term process, and that missing one run is not a big deal as long as you get back to your habit-building process the next day.
For more information, tips, and tons of habit-related resources, check out this great article. Good luck!