Get addicted to exercise: Five ways to nuture a fitness habit

How to become a person that loves to wake up early for a morning run or hit a fitness class at lunch
By James Fell
blonde woman stretching outdoors at sunrise, workout and fitness Getty Images

Things used to be different for me.

I remember long drives to work where I would be stuck in rush hour traffic and see cyclists whip past me, pedalling hard on their morning commute. And I remember watching, from my window seat at the food court, people out for a run during their lunch break instead of partaking in the MSG-laced fast food bounty.

I remember what it was like to not understand those people who got up early to hit a fitness class, pump iron, or swim endless lengths in a too-cold pool. Then I became one of those people. Then I developed the exercise habit.

If your habit isn’t there yet, here’s how you can get it too:

1. Find your exercise “zen”
A lot of people tackle exercise with a New Year’s resolution mentality. In other words, they look at it from the perspective of what is going to burn the most calories, tone the butt the best, make for the most muscular arms, flatten the belly…

Besides the point that exercise is so much more than burning calories, this is a toxic mindset.

When you’re starting out, you need to be primarily concerned with adhering to this new fitness regimen, and you can’t stick to something you hate long term. It’s all about feeling the love, and love starts with homework.

In other words, don’t just jump into something willy nilly. Do your research and find something that you think you could enjoy. If you like to dance, then perhaps Zumba is for you. Do you live in a nice neighbourhood? Walking is better for fitness than you might think. Think there is a thrill-seeker inside of you? I find going speedy on my bike to be exhilarating. Want to meet new people? Any number of fitness classes have the same folks showing up again and again, and bonds get formed.

Research and experiment and you’ll find something that clicks.

2. Set goals
Long-term goals are important. It’s good to have an idea of what you want to achieve, whether it is a visual idea, improved physical performance, inches lost, cholesterol lowered etc.

These are prizes to keep your eye on, but far more important are your short-term goals. The process that you go through week after week that leads to those long-term outcomes. One thing I am a big fan of is taking your new exercise regimen, putting it in calendar format, and sticking it to the fridge and relishing in ticking each one off as “done.” You can also put it in your electronic calendar as a recurring appointment – whatever it takes to remind you that you’re supposed to be exercising.

3. Go public

There are lots of ways to do this, and one of my favorites is to sign up for a race or other event that requires exercise training. With that done, tell everyone you know, plus the people on Twitter and Facebook, that you’ve signed up for some kind of event and that your training starts now. This creates a powerful external motivator and support structure to push you along.

An additional idea is to write about it. Start a blog and journal about your journey to fitness. As an example, last January I mentioned in my LA Times column that I had registered for the LA Marathon on March 18 (my first marathon). I would have looked bad if I hadn’t followed through, so I did.

3. Track your progress

I’m a big fan of finding something you love doing, but here is the thing: love sneaks up on you. When I’m running through a Canadian winter snowstorm at hideous below zero I’m not exactly feeling as good as if I was tossing back a Corona on a beach in Cozumel. But I believe that love comes from building what is called self-efficacy. What this means is, love comes from getting good at something. When you start off at a new exercise, you’re probably going to suck at it. I sure sucked at running at first. (Like, REALLY sucked.) But over time, you find you can run further and faster and don’t feel like a you-shaped bag of pain afterwards.

Or you advance to the higher level yoga class, discover you can lift more weight, can do all the moves in Pilates… These are the things that make you love it. That major confidence boost from getting good at something makes you want to do it again and again.

4. Commit to another person (or people)
There are a few ways to do this, and they’re all very powerful because they enlist a support structure. It can be a friend or a spouse or a group class. Did you know that people who exercise at home alone have the lowest adherence rates? Those who get out of the house with other people, conversely, are the ones most likely to stick with it, and there are lots of options for doing so. If you want to become a runner, for example, joining a running clinic where you meet the same instructor and group of people regularly can be very motivating, especially if you bring a friend or spouse with you.

5. Do it first thing in the morning

I’ll link to this LA Times article of mine again because it discusses how people who exercise first thing in the morning have the highest adherence rates. The reason is simple: the day has not yet worn them down and provided them with excuses not to exercise. First thing in the morning is when your will is strongest, and if you’ve got the routine of doing it right after brushing your teeth, you’re far more likely to follow through than if the plan is to exercise after a brutal day at the office.

Follow these five tips and the exercise habit will take. It won’t just be a habit anymore either, it will become a part of who you are. Have fun during this process.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.


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