Published September 28, 2013
We all have friends who, despite hectic schedules, never miss a day at the gym. Who can't stop talking about the next 10K. Who can't stop smiling after yoga class. Sure, they’re a little, well, obsessive about working out. But we envy them! The good news is we all have the potential to become fitness-obsessed, says Tom Holland, a Connecticut-based celebrity fitness trainer, exercise physiologist, and expert in sports psychology. Here are 20 proven ways to make exercise a habit.
Get up earlier
Right this minute, go set your alarm and lay out everything you need for your morning workout. (Switch on a lamp as soon as your alarm goes off, says fitness blogger Tina Haupert, so you wake up faster.) Working out at the same time every day may help you improve more quickly, a study from the University of North Texas found, and other research has shown that people who exercise in the morning are more likely to stick with their workout than those who exercise later in the day. After all, if you get your sweat session out of the way first thing in the a.m., you won't miss out if unexpected distractions come up later in the day. (And while we're on the subject, skip the snooze button: Research suggests that those extra few minutes in bed may actually make you more tired.)
Give it six weeks
There's an urban legend that it takes 21 days for something to become a habit, but there's little evidence to back up this claim. For exercise, it's probably more like six weeks, says Rebecca Woll, manager of personal training at Equinox in New York City. "This is when you start to see aesthetic changes in your body," she explains. "Once you see these changes you won't want to go back to the old you!" This is also about the time you'll start to notice the difference in how you feel if you miss a day or two of exercise, and you'll start to appreciate the natural high that comes after a good workout.
Find your niche
So you tried spinning and you hated it, or you hurt yourself on your first day of CrossFit. That doesn't mean that all forms of fitness aren't for you—so get back out there and try a different one. "Find something that makes you tune out and gives you a release from your daily grind," says Woll—whether that means focusing on the ground ahead of you on a trail run, or following the instructor in a Zumba class. "You'll know you found it when you look at the clock and an hour flashes by without you noticing." Holland agrees: "I always tell my clients, 'I don't exercise,'" he says. "I'll go for a run or go to the gym, but I don't think of it as exercise because that suddenly gives it a negative connotation."
Hire a trainer
Whether you're a total newcomer to the fitness scene or you just need a little motivation and guidance, a personal trainer can help you set goals and develop a plan to make them happen. "People think they can't afford it, but they don't realize that even just one or two sessions with a trainer can be so beneficial," says Holland. "Investing just one or two hundred bucks can go a long way." Plus, a good trainer will also hold you accountable and will motivate you to work your hardest, Holland adds. "It's all about positive reinforcement and being there for the client when they need it."
Join a club
Working out is more fun with friends—and it's a lot harder to bail on when you've got other people relying on you. "I think that's why groups like CrossFit and Weight Watchers are so successful," says Holland. "It shows the value of the support system, which should be an integral part of any workout plan." Your exercise club could be an entire gym full of people, a regular fitness class where everyone knows your name, or just one exercise buddy who makes sure you're out of bed to meet her for your morning walks. Feeling ambitious? Start a fitness or weight-loss contest with your friends or coworkers, suggests Woll. "A little healthy competition always gets you motivated!"
Make it convenient
Think about when, where, and how your workout can best (and most easily) fit into your daily routine, says Woll. "You don't want to travel far to get to a gym," for example, she says, "or the likelihood of going will decrease immensely." For some people, a gym near the office will help them squeeze in a workout before work or during their lunch break; for others, working out at home or at a gym near their house is more convenient. (And don't forget about where you'll work out on the weekends!) Plan ahead to make sure you can get everything you need—like clothes and shower supplies—to and from your workouts. Or take a tip from Haupert, who rented a locker at her gym so she could keep her things there all week long.
Become a groupie
The right teacher can make a fitness class feel more like a party than a workout, whether it's Zumba, spinning or cardio kickboxing. "Finding an instructor is like dating," says Woll. "If the first one doesn't work, keep looking. This person should make you want to come to the gym!" (Just be ready for some competition: Popular fitness instructors see their classes fill up fast, and maintain loyal followings even when they switch class times and locations.) You can even glean workout inspiration from celebrity instructors and trainers. Even if you've never met them in person, following your fitness idols on Facebook, working out to their DVDs or reading their advice in magazines can all be powerful motivators to follow their examples.
Pay for it
"Being accountable with money is a good thing," says Holland, "If you invest in a fitness regimen, you're more likely to work harder to get your money's worth." (He's learned that when he gives away training sessions for free, his clients aren't nearly as motivated.) If you can afford it, joining an upscale gym or splurging on boutique fitness classes could be just the thing you need to force yourself to actually go. Or, bribe yourself with smaller investments—treat yourself to a new pair of running shoes (like these 13 brightly colored running shoes for fall) or a new GPS watch, for example.
Don't overdo it
One way to put a stop to your new exercise habit before it even gets off the ground? Getting hurt. Beginners (or people just returning to fitness after a long break) need to be careful about trying to do too much, too soon, which can leave you sore and exhausted—or worse yet, with a real injury that will keep you sidelined for even longer. It's normal to have some muscle aches and stiffness a day or two after working out muscles you haven't used in a while, but if you start to feel sick or overly tired, you could be training too hard. Following a training plan (like a Couch to 5K program) or working with a personal trainer can help you make sure you're progressing at a reasonable pace.
Get techy (and social)
For some people, the feel-good side effects of exercise are enough to keep them going. Others need something a little more tangible to get themselves up and out of bed every morning. If you thrive on statistics and numbers, you may find that using apps, computer programs, or wearable pedometers and fitness trackers can help you stay on track with a new routine. Whether you're counting your daily steps or the number of calories you've burned, technology can help you challenge yourself to new personal bests every day. Plus, many of these programs can be integrated with your social networks, making it easy to let your Facebook feed know that you just ran 3 miles or checked in at the gym. Once your friends start asking you about your new exercise habits, it may be harder to let them fall by the wayside.
Hold out on yourself
Trick yourself into looking forward to exercise, by making it the only time you treat yourself to something special. Maybe it's a podcast or a playlist of songs that you only listen to you while you run, your favorite TV show that you'll only watch from the treadmill, brunch with girlfriends after yoga class, or a special dessert you only allow yourself on days you've worked out. When you associate exercise with positive experiences, says Holland, you'll start to look at it less as a chore and more as something fun and rewarding.
Count your calories
It's not directly related to exercise, but paying closer attention to what you're putting into your body can make you more aware of how you're treating it, overall. (Keeping a food and fitness diary or using a calorie-tracking app can also remind you of how a few more minutes on the elliptical can help balance out that extra scoop of guacamole.) Plus, a 2013 Stanford University study found that people who adopt a diet and exercise program together are more likely to stick with both new habits than those who tackle an individual goal by itself.
Set attainable goals
"I think the vast majority of people set the wrong goals—ones that are too ambitious or that can't be quantified" says Holland. Instead, it's important to work toward smaller benchmarks, agrees Woll—losing six pounds in six weeks, for example, or to run a 5K in two months and a half marathon in a year, she says. "Your end goals will change as you reach them, but they always need to be set." To keep yourself on track, keep your goal front and center: Sign up for a race and circle the date on your calendar, or hang up an old pair of pants that you'd like to fit back into three months from now.
Skip the gym
If getting to the gym every day isn't conducive to your schedule (or you just hate the idea of going there, period), don't force it. Thanks to workout DVDs, streaming online classes, and home exercise systems, it's easier than ever to get a great workout without even leaving your house. "A lot of people really like the idea of exercising in the privacy of their own homes, and it can be much easier to fit into a busy schedule," says Holland. Plus, when your workout is staring you in the face—your treadmill in the living room or your P90X chin-up bar hanging from a doorway—it's a lot harder to ignore.
Write it out
A 2002 British study found that when adults were told to keep track of how much they worked out over the next two weeks, those who were first asked to formulate a plan on exactly when and where they would exercise were more likely to exercise at least once a week—91 percent, versus just 38 percent of those who hadn't planned ahead. Having a schedule and figuring out the logistics ahead of time will give you fewer obstacles (like forgetting your sneakers or double-booking yourself) on the day of your workout.
Make it a ritual
The most important thing about establishing a regular routine, whether it's exercise or anything else, is to truly make it a habit—something you don't even think twice about before doing, says Holland. This will come with time, but you can help hurry the process along by creating daily rituals that center around your workout: Sip a cup of coffee on your way to the gym in the morning, roll out your yoga mat in front of the TV when you wake up in the morning, or listen to a favorite song to get you pumped up before you head out for a run. Before you know it, these cues will be signaling to your brain that it's time to work out—not time to make excuses.
Don't make it about you
Charity fitness events—runs, walks, bike rides, even mountain climbing trips—can do double duty when it comes to motivation: Not only are you training for a concrete goal, but you're also doing it for a good cause. "It can be really empowering, to know that this small thing you're doing for yourself can also have a bigger impact on other people who really need it," says Holland. Some charity-oriented fitness programs will even set you up with a coach and a training program, at no or little cost to you besides what you're required to fundraise.
Fitness competitions may sound pretty boring to some people; why pay money to wake up early and run around in circles, again? If a regular old 5K doesn't quite do it for you, grab some friends and sign up for something with a bit more personality. From mud runs to military-inspired obstacle courses to costumed and "color" races (which involve participants getting splattered with brightly colored paint and powder), themed fun runs are certainly having a moment. And the best part? They're all about finishing and having a good time; many of them aren't even timed, and they welcome runners and walkers of all ages and fitness levels.
Plan a (fitness-focused) vacation
"Combining vacations with exercise is a great reward, and it helps people set goals that they'll actually want to accomplish," says Holland. "Say you want to go to Italy, so you sign up for a bike tour around the country while you're there; well, now you've got to get in shape for it so you can have the best possible experience while you're there." Sign up for a destination race—the Paris Marathon, for example—or just book a trip that involves a lot of physical activity, whether it's hiking or skiing.
Skip the Tonight Show
If you're going to start getting up earlier (see tip No. 1), it's important to make sure you're still getting enough sleep (most of us need seven to eight hours a night). This probably means tucking yourself in at a decent hour, rather than staying up late watching television or sending work emails. Luckily, research has shown that working out during the day can help you fall asleep faster and sleep better, overall, so your new exercise habit may actually make this easier. To make a permanent change in your sleeping patterns, begin shifting your bedtime up 15 minutes every night and setting your alarm for 15 minutes earlier, until you've reached your goal times (say, to bed at 10 p.m. and up at 6 a.m.).