How to Make Exercise a Lifelong Habit

Story at-a-glance -

  • Consistent exercisers have made exercise a habit triggered by a cue, such as hearing the morning alarm and heading for the gym first thing in the morning without even thinking about it
  • This kind of habit is referred to as “an instigation habit,” and it’s the only factor able to predict a person’s ability to maintain an exercise regimen over the long-term
  • Reframing your thoughts about the rewards of exercise, focusing on the immediate — how you feel right after exercising — rather than long-term rewards, can also make your exercise habit stick

By Dr. Mercola

While a healthy diet accounts for about 80 percent of the benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle, exercise is the leverage that allows all of those benefits to be maximized.

You simply cannot be optimally healthy without regular physical movement—and this includes both non-exercise movement throughout the day, and a more vigorous exercise regimen.

Those who succeed at maintaining good health into old age typically have one thing in common: a healthy diet and regular exercise is part of their day-to-day lifestyle. It’s not an on-and-off proposition to fit into a particular garment for a special occasion.

As the above video from ModernHealthMonk alludes to, building new habits can be challenging however, especially when you’re trying to fit a new block of activity into an already packed schedule. So what’s the best way to get into the habit of exercising, and stick with it long-term?

Building Habits Around Cues

A recent study1 sought to find the answer to that question, and what they discovered was quite interesting. As reported by Time magazine:2

“The most consistent exercisers... were those who made exercise into a specific type of habit — one triggered by a cue, like hearing your morning alarm and going to the gym without even thinking about it, or getting stressed and immediately deciding to exercise.

‘It’s not something you have to deliberate about; you don’t have to consider the pros and cons of going to the gym after work,’ explains L. Alison Phillips, PhD... Instead, it’s an automatic decision instigated by your own internal or environmental cue.”

This kind of habit is referred to as “an instigation habit,” and it was found to provide people with the most consistent results. In fact, the strength of a person’s instigation habit was the only factor able to predict a person’s ability to maintain an exercise regimen over the long-term.

The idea that a habit is formed by doing the same thing over and over again is well-accepted, but when it comes to forming exercise habits, forcing yourself to repeat the same specific exercise “to get into the habit of doing it” may actually be counterproductive.

Instead, decide what your trigger cue will be, and then just follow through by going to the gym (or wherever you do your exercise) when the cue is triggered. The specific exercises performed once you get there is far less important, in terms of actually cementing your exercise habit.

The idea is to hinge the habit around a recurring cue, so that you head for the gym without actually having to consciously decide to do so each time.

Reframing the Rewards of Exercise

Another helpful strategy is to reframe your ideas on the rewards of exercise. If you’re like most people, you probably want to exercise in order to improve your health and/or lose weight.

However, research into the motivational aspects of exercise shows that such expectations actually do not propel most people into forming healthy exercise habits.

As noted by Dr. Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan:3

“Health is not an optimal way to make physical activity relevant and compelling enough for most people to prioritize in their hectic lives.”

What usually does work is focusing on the immediate rewards — i.e. how you feel right after exercising.

“I was going to skip my daily swim the other morning.. .But I knew from past experience that I would feel much better after 40 minutes of swimming laps. So in I went.

And, yes, I did feel better — not just refreshed, but more energetic, clearheaded and better prepared than I would have been otherwise to tackle the day’s essentials,’ Jane Brody writes.4

“... [Dr.] Segar... would say I had reframed my exercise experience, making it ever more likely that I would continue to swim — even on days when I didn’t feel like doing it — because I viewed it as a positive, restorative activity.

Indeed, exercise is something I do, not because I have to or was told to, but because I know it makes me feel better.”

Discovering the Joy of Feeling Good, and the Paradox of Self-Care

In short, discovering the inherent enjoyment you get from exercise in the more immediate term is key for making it a lifelong habit. And the immediate rewards are usually quite noteworthy.

Most will feel revitalized, refreshed, and more clear-headed shortly after exercising, and if your goal is to recapture that sense of well-being each time, rather than losing 20 pounds by summer, or heading off heart disease in some far distant future, you’re far more apt to stick to it.

After all, we all want to feel good — not in the future, but right now — and part of the “trick” is discovering how exercise can help you feel better more or less immediately. Discovering how exercise gives you the energy and stamina to be better equipped to help others is another key.

Brody quotes Dr. Segar, saying:5

“When we do not prioritize our own self-care because we are busy serving others, our energy is not replenished. Instead, we are exhausted, and our ability to be there for anyone or anything else is compromised.’  People who make physical activity a priority don’t necessarily have more time than others. Rather, they make sure to schedule time for it because they know it enhances their performance and the quality of their daily lives...

Citing a ‘paradox of self-care,’ Dr. Segar wrote, ‘The more energy you give to caring for yourself, the more energy you have for everything else.’ She suggests viewing physical activity as a power source for everything else you want to accomplish. ‘What sustains us, we sustain’...”

Five Habits of People Who Never Skip a Workout

Based on her 20 years’ worth of experience studying motivation, Dr. Michelle Segar has written a book called No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. In it, she reveals science-backed strategies for making exercise a lifelong habit. Here are five of her common-sense tips:6

  • Count all forms of physical activity: According to Dr. Segar, realizing that everything counts, including taking the stairs instead of the elevator; a 10 minute lunch walk, and half an hours’ worth of gardening—can be very transformative, as it removes feelings of failure. “It makes them feel successful every time they move, which leads to higher energy levels all day long,” she says.
  • Focus on the Now: Asking yourself “what can I do right now?” is another way to liberate yourself from time- and scheduling limitations. You may not have time to squeeze in 30 minutes of tennis, but perhaps you have time for a brisk walk during lunch, or a few sit-ups right next to your desk.
  • Do what you enjoy: Not surprisingly, research7 has shown that enjoyment is one of the strongest predictors of long-term exercise maintenance. According to Dr. Segar:
  • “Our brains are hardwired to respond to immediate gratification, and to do what makes us feel good. This is one of the reasons we tend to give up on chore-like workouts.”

  • Take ownership of your health and fitness: The idea that you “should” exercise isn’t compelling enough for most people. More often than not, such guilt trips will backfire, even when it’s self imposed.  Instead, identify what it is you seek to gain from exercise. As noted earlier, honing in on the more immediate rewards, such as feeling refreshed and able to think more clearly right there and then, are more potent motivators than “avoiding future heart disease” or “losing 10 pounds.”
  • Make one change at a time: Trying to change several facets of your lifestyle all at once is usually a recipe for failure. For most people, changing your diet, starting an exercise regimen, and learning to meditate all at once is just too much. So incorporate new habits one at a time. You may even need to break some habits into smaller, more manageable chunks. “[A]bove all else, remember to keep it fun, because that is the true secret to lasting motivation,” Dr. Segar says. “Do the physical movement you want to do, when you want to do it, for the amount of time your life allows. That’s the best way to keep from lapsing altogether.”

Tips for Building a High-Quality Fitness Regimen

For optimal health and fitness, strive for a varied and well-rounded program that incorporates a wide variety of exercises to avoid hitting a plateau. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercises into your program:

  1. Sit down as little as possible.The research is quite clear on this point: the more you sit, the greater the risks to your health. This applies even if you exercise regularly and are very fit. The key is to keep moving all day long. For ideas on how to incorporate more movement into your day, please see my interview with Dr. James Levine, author of the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.
  2. If you have a desk job, I recommend getting a standing desk, or at the very least stand up at regular intervals. For ideas on quick exercises you can do right by your desk, check out this list of 30 videos. However, it is my experience that using a stand up desk is far superior to sitting and doing these exercises.

    In addition to limiting your sitting as much as you possibly can, I also recommend challenging yourself to walk 7,000-10,000 steps per day. This is over and above your regular fitness program. You may want to consider one of the new fitness trackers that can monitor your steps and your sleep.

    Look for opportunities to walk. I have a regular routine where I'm able to walk for nearly two hours on the beach while reading, and am able to get 17-18,000 steps a day. However, when I travel this is simply not possible, especially on travel days. So when I arrive at the airport gate, I don’t sit down like nearly everyone else. Instead I walk up and down the aisles and board the plane last, as I typically don’t have a carry on. This way, I'm still able to squeeze in about 7,000 steps on days that I'm traveling.

  3. High-intensity interval training (HIIT): Interval training involves alternating short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods, and are central to my Peak Fitness routine.  
  4. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also "up" the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high-intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
  5. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and help you gain greater balance and stability.

    Foundation Training, created by Dr. Eric Goodman, is an integral first step of a larger program he calls "Modern Moveology," which consists of a catalog of exercises. Postural exercises such as those taught in Foundation Training are critical not just for properly supporting your frame during daily activities, they also retrain your body so you can safely perform high-intensity exercises without risking injury.

    Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer. Some of the exercises described above, such as the V-up using a medicine ball, also fall into this category.

  6. Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
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