16.02.2022

How to Stay Consistent With Exercise

 

Estimated Reading Time: 10 Minutes 

One of the biggest challenges people face with exercise is doing workouts on a consistent basis. Consistency is crucial in maximising the progress of an exercise regime, and although the initial enthusiasm when pursuing a new fitness goal often burns very brightly, over time the flame dwindles and after a series of skipped workouts and shortcuts, it can eventually go out. 


To labour the metaphor a little longer, this quickly creates a vicious cycle because future attempts to create a fire is going to be much harder with damp kindling - it would have been far more effective to keep your initial fire ignited with small but consistent efforts. 


We know that consistency is important, but what can we do to keep ourselves on track? Strangely enough, one powerful strategy actually comes from the world of stand up comedy. It’s an anecdote from the career of elite stand up comedian Jerry Seinfeld. If you’re not already a fan, Jerry Seinfeld is one of the top stand up comedians in the world and the star of his own eponymous and very successful sitcom, Seinfeld. 


Cast of the sitcom Seinfeld

 

The anecdote was actually first told by a then-fledgling comedian by the name of Brad Isaac, who once approached Jerry Seinfeld and asked him if he had any tips that would help the career of a young comedian. Seinfeld said, “the way to be a better comedian is to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes is to write every day". 

 

Seinfeld then recommended that Isaac purchase a large wall calendar, get a big red marker and for every day Isaac successfully carried out his writing practice he mark the day with a big red "X". Seinfeld noted: “After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

 

An important consideration here is that Seinfeld didn’t ask Isaac to gauge the quality of his jokes, but simply to honour the consistent practice. So whether you are writing jokes, or establishing a consistent habit of exercise, it is the consistency that delivers the results, not the judgement of any particular performance, or even the results they yield. 

 

To explore this concept through the lens of exercise, we need to make a couple of considerations. Firstly there are different classifications of exercise, so so you may not necessarily be served by doing every type of exercise every day, so you can edit your calendar to the frequency you need to see. For example, you might set up a weight lifting calendar to be ticked off on a Monday, Wednesday and a Friday and just block out the other days, favouring this type of exercise three times per week, whereas a daily walk or steady-state cardio practice may very well be something you’d want to do every day. 

 

Implementing habits that you complete on a regular basis isn't just psychological, it can also make a difference on a physiological level too. The more we engage in a given behaviour or skill, the more our brains strengthen the connection between the neurons involved in making them easier to perform. This is how mastery of a skill is achieved or, to put it in a more relatable way, practice makes perfect. 

 

Essentially this means we can leverage very strongly held behaviours and habits to our advantage, exploiting them for their usefulness in the creation of a new habit. For example, brushing your teeth in the morning is probably pretty much second nature to you. If your goal for example was to work on your balance you could set a new intention, like this: every evening when I brush my teeth, I’ll spend some time standing on each leg. 

 

This way you can see how you’ve now leveraged an action, a behaviour, a habit that was going to take place regardless and used it to bolster your new habit. So every time you do something that you’ve been doing anyway, you now also do the new habit that stands to enhance your health. This is a specific form of implementation intention and we can use it in this way to achieve what is known as ‘habit stacking’.

 

The habit stacking formula is:

After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

 

Of course, we can't endlessly stack behaviour on behaviour all day, that would get a little robotic and inflexible. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t myriad other potential triggers in your daily life that you could leverage. 

 

To see the low hanging fruit and identify opportunities for instigating habit change, James Clear suggests that you sit down with a pen and paper and create two columns. The first column would be an exhaustive list of all of the habits that you do each day without fail, such as getting out of bed, showering, travelling to work etc. The second column would consist of a list of all of the things that happen TO you each day without fail, such as the sun rising, receiving an email, having the song that you're listening to end. 

 

Once you have these two lists, you can look for the highest leverage points from which to set about establishing your new habits, linking the habits that you want to implement with the activities that will take place regardless. 

 

When habit stacking, be sure to be as specific as you possibly can, for example saying that you’ll take a mobility break during your working day, probably isn’t going to be specific enough and there is too much room for error - you might find yourself at the end of your workday with an hour to go and more than an hours worth of work to do, so you’d have lost your chance for a mobility practice. 

 

A better approach would be to say something like "the moment I clear my emails in the morning, I will play and follow a 10 minute mobility video on YouTube". 

 

The methods I’ve outlined here can be used to incorporate a new habit in any area of your life. By combining the two strategies I’ve laid out here, you’ll be able to establish and stay consistent with an initial exercise habit, then leverage it to build further habits and create an entirely new healthy lifestyle for yourself that you’ll be able to engrain for the long term and set you up for success across all areas of life.

 

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