08.02.2022

How To Make Exercise A Daily Habit


Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes 

When trying to establish a new exercise program, it is important to be as consistent as possible. Of course, this can be challenging. Many people struggle to establish a consistent exercise habit, which is a shame because even the best laid out workout program isn’t going to work if it’s abandoned early. 

 

Why is consistency important? Although you may think that there's no harm in something of a stop/start approach when becoming acclimatised to a new training plan, is that really the case? Each time we fail to follow through on a training plan, we run the risk of weakening our willpower and self-esteem. Repeated internal references of failure can dent our self-image and make us more hesitant to take on challenges that would otherwise contribute to maximising our potential. To further compound that, failed attempts at exercise mean more lost ground on our original starting position, which can lead to subsequent attempts being more extreme and less likely to succeed. 

 

The good news is that there’s another side to that coin. Self-esteem and a positive self-image aren’t built on huge life achievements, they come from keeping appointments with ourselves on a frequent basis, essentially following through on doing the things we say we’re going to do, either to other people or ourselves. In essence, establishing a frequent exercise habit is not only great for your health, it's also an excellent springboard for change in other areas of your life too. 

 

What exactly do we mean by a 'habit'? The dictionary definition is 

"a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up".

 

So that really sums up what we’re trying to achieve, not only is a habit well established, it's actually so well ingrained that it’s HARD to give up. 

 

To implement a new habit, it can help to understand the mechanics of this. Most people don’t fully understand the mechanics of how a habit is established, so let’s examine the three core components of a habit: 

The Cue or Trigger

This is the part of the habit loop where you are triggered to take some sort of action through a cue in your internal or external environment.

The Action

Good or bad, this is the part of the habit loop where you actually take action on the habit you want to adopt or drop.

The Reward

This is the part of the habit loop where your brain receives a reward for taking the desired activity (or not as you will see in just a second).

We’ll examine how to put this together through the frame of reference of exercise in a moment…

 

 

The second challenge you might face with establishing a habit is trying to take on too much at once, or having an unrealistic time frame of what you’d like to achieve. You have to broker a deal, with yourself if you are trying to get into regular exercise. You want to choose exercise that you either enjoy or has a low logistical barrier to entry. For example, if you hate swimming, there is no point starting there. Likewise, there is no point starting out with tennis, where by definition you would be reliant on someone else to play with to get going - there are too many moving parts there and too many opportunities for an uncontrollable variable to let you down i.e your tennis partner doesn't turn up. 

 

It's also worth considering the role that motivation plays in implementing these habits. Saying that, the power of motivation, in practice, is significantly overestimated. Everyone has motivation, it’s equivalent to a want or a desire and it’s easy to come by but also easy to lose, so I would encourage you to become driven, not motivated. 

 

The way to do this is to really visualise what establishing this habit means to you, how it contributes to your broader goals for yourself and the life you want to live. By this, I mean literally visualise yourself on the other side of the goals, whether that means looking a certain way, feeling a certain way being able to do certain things for longer, whatever the goal means to you. 

 

Sit in these emotions, lock them into your memory, visit them regularly and build a solid association between these emotions and the habit you’re aiming to establish. This is a Neuro-linguistic programming technique known as 'anchoring an emotion' and on dark, rainy days, revisiting these emotions will be far more powerful than what we broadly refer to as motivation.  

 

I'd recommend two simple options to kick things off your habit setting; the first one is simply to get out of the house and walk for ten minutes each day and the second is to follow a simple mobility practice indoors each day. Let's look at how the mechanics of a habit can be applied to these examples: 

 

A morning walk is a great habit to kickstart your day

 

Stage 1: This is your cue or trigger, so the easiest thing to do here would be to leave your exercise shoes by the door for the walk or your exercise mat laid out ready for the morning mobility practice. This is what you call ‘priming your environment’ and it stacks the odds in your favour. 

 

Stage 2: This is the action. In our scenario this means as soon as you see your shoes, you put them on and get right out the door before you have time to rationalise yourself out of it. For the mobility example, you get down on the mat and start moving through your sequence. 

 

Stage 3: The last stage is the reward stage. This can be both internal and external -remember what we said about building self-esteem, the very act of seeing your activity through is going to be internally rewarding. Let’s also call back what we said about brokering a deal with yourself, rewarding yourself with a great warm drink like a tea or coffee once you’re finished with your activity would work really well as an external reward. 

 

It's worth noting that I’ve set both of these actions for first thing in the morning. I’ve often found in my experience as a trainer that scheduling your exercise early on in the day often means a lower chance of some unforeseen circumstances arising and making the activity harder to carry out. 

 

To bolster the Cue, Action, Reward method we’ve just outlined let’s introduce the psychological principle of 'Implementation Intentions'. Implementation intentions present a self-regulatory strategy that can help increase your chances of successful goal achievement. 

 

In his excellent book Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines a poignant example and really outlines what we’ve been discussing, researchers in Great Britain segmented a sample of people who had all signalled that they were ‘motivated’ to exercise regularly. 

248 people were segmented into three groups. Group one was the control group. And were simply asked to track how often they exercised. 

 

Group two were termed the ‘motivation’ group, and were asked not only to track their workouts but also to read some material on the benefits of exercise. 

 

Finally, there was the third group. These subjects were given the same motivational and educational material as the second group, which ensured that they had equal levels of motivation. However, they were also asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise over the following week. 

 

Specifically, each member of the third group completed the following sentence:

 

 

“During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”

 

At the end of the study, they found that 35 to 38 percent of people in the first two groups exercised at least once per week, but 91 percent of the third group exercised at least once per week—more than double the normal rate.

 

Therefore the study suggests that by simply writing down a plan that said exactly when and where they intended to exercise, the participants in Group 3 were much more likely to actually follow through.

 

To apply this strategy to the habits suggested above, our Implementation Intention will be as follows: 

 

I intend to go for a ten-minute walk around my area every morning, as soon as I wake up. 

 

Although in the early stages of a habit we’re negotiating with ourselves to get something done on a regular basis, it becomes easier to do over time as the habit beds in, and eventually will be just as routine as brushing your teeth or taking a shower. It's at this stage where you no longer have to broker a deal that is so heavily stacked in your favour and, if you wanted to, you’d be able to make a habit out of much less pleasant activities, such as a freezer cold shower for example. 

 

Ultimately, over time productive habits will shift your identity, develop character and just like negative habits, have the power to shape our lives. Now that you know how habits work, you have the power to establish any healthy habits you want for yourself.

“Intention is more than wishful thinking, it’s willful direction’ - Jennifer Williamson

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