Lauren Laitin kept up her pledge to do some form of exercise every day for a month—even when a Jan. 23 blizzard dumped snow on the Washington, D.C., area, where she lives. Her gym was closed, so she tugged on a pair of boots and forced herself out the door for a short run.

“I might not have made it 2 miles, because it was slippery and snowing,” recalls Ms. Laitin, principal of executive coaching firm Parachute Coaching. “But I was so proud of myself that I did it.”

The 30-day exercise challenge is increasingly popular, especially as an alternative to New Year’s resolutions, which often fail this time of year. The pitch is to stick with a commitment for a month, whether to reach a specific benchmark, mix up a routine or try to establish an exercise habit.

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Thirty-day challenges push people to chase goals big and small, from cutting out soda to writing a novel. More than 200 smartphone apps for Apple’s iOS operating system have “30 day challenge” in the title, 10 times the number available in 2014, according to App Annie, an analytics and market-data company. Internet searches for “30 day challenge” have climbed 140% since 2013, according to Google. Gyms and yoga studios offer them as a way to win customers, hoping that a 30-day stint will turn into a habit.

Several people who have tried or designed 30-day exercise challenges say they were inspired by a 2011 TED Talk by Google software engineer Matt Cutts called “Try something new for 30 days.” It has been viewed more than 7 million times.

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