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Want to Cross Exercise Off Your Resolution List? Here is the Key

In case the title didn’t give it away: What boosts your energy, deepens your sleep, reduces your stress, improves your mood, lowers your anxiety, spikes your sex drive, decreases your risk factors for disease and just generally plays a major role in keeping you fit and healthy? You guessed it! It’s exercise. What’s more, studies show that establishing an exercise routine elevates your self-esteem and self-discipline. It makes it more likely for you to make positive choices in other areas of your life. It’s the gift that just keeps giving. But it’s nothing you haven’t heard before, right?

These are the reasons that exercise consistently makes its way back to your resolutions list. Year after year. After year.

How do you break the cycle? How do you create an exercise habit that lasts?

The key word here is habit. To succeed in crossing exercise off of your resolution list, it has to become an integrated, seamless part of your regular routine. Like (hopefully) brushing your teeth, having a shower, and putting clothes on when you leave the house. You might be thinking: How do I do that? Or: I’ve tried damn you! Hold your horses. I’ll be laying it all out.

The Inevitable Backfiring of ‘Go Big Or Go Home’

You get excited. You’re going to go to a class at the gym 3 evenings a week. You buy a membership. You buy new workout gear. You put it into your calendar. And you know what else? You’re also going to quit sugar, declutter your home, start a journaling habit, read 30 minutes a day, and meditate every morning. Hey, while you’re at it, you’re going to sign up for that painting class you’ve always wanted to take. Creativity is important, am I right?

This, my friend, is exactly why you fail. You try to do too much. And by God, you do it! For 3 days, or a week, maybe even two. Then you get sick, or stressed, or tired and overwhelmed. You stop, saying it’s only a break. You’ll get back on the wagon on Monday. But you don’t.

Because ‘go big or go home’ absolutely, completely does not work when it comes to habits.

New Year Resolutions may be a LIST, but that doesn’t mean you can start everything at the same time! Well maybe the odd unicorn out there can. But in all likelihood, I’m sorry to say, you are not that unicorn.

Small and Steady Wins the Race

So let’s start again: How do you break the cycle? You create an exercise habit. And how do you create a habit? Well, repetition is the obvious first answer to that question. But what makes repetition possible? You follow 5(ish) steps! You can apply these steps to any habit you want to create, but here it’s clearly going to be focused on…exercise:

1. Know Your Why

Why do you- you specifically- want to build an exercise habit? I know, I’ve listed all the benefits above. But what benefits matter to you and why?. Do you wake up every morning sluggish and drag yourself through the day, so an energy boost that gives you clarity and focus is what you need? Do you have mood swings, insomnia, or a stiff back? Do you find yourself short of breath when you go up the stairs or run after your kids? Maybe it’s a few of these things, or all of them, or something I haven’t thought of.

Knowing your why helps you anchor your commitment. It keeps you motivated and reminds you why you need to persevere on the days when you’re feeling like giving up, and when your old default habits and patterns are tempting you. And don’t just think about your ‘why’. Write it down. Write it down and put it somewhere you can see it every day. The reason for this very last thing will show up in a couple of steps!

2. Make It Easy, Very Easy

How do you make it easy? After all, if it were ‘easy’ you’d be doing it already right? Well…to some degree, but not really. First, remember what I said about not having to do the whole list just because you have it?

Behavior scientists talk about something called ‘habit stacking’. You pick a habit that you already have and you build your new habit upon it (i.e you go to work- and there is a gym on your route home, or you make a coffee in the morning and then have a shower- fancy that, a quick workout in your living room can fit right in between those two!). Once your new habit (exercise) is just as established as the old one you’ve anchored it to, THEN you can build a new one. If you’ve decided that exercise is your first habit in the stack, forget about the other ones you want to create for now. Just focus on exercise. Want to know more about habit stacking? Check out this nifty video.

How else do you make it easy? Start small. Don’t decide that you’re going to do a 90min Muay Thai class every morning this week. Your body will hurt and you’ll be discouraged. Maybe the infamous 7 Minute workout is the way to start, or a 20 minute yoga routine on youtube, or a brisk walk home from work.

The key is repetition and consistency. Daily is best! Or on the same days every week- Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And if you’re thinking ppsssshhh, that’s barely any exercise, you’re wrong. Starting small and with the method of exercise that you find easiest to commit to is essential. Choose the path of least resistance. Give yourself minimal possibilities to create excuses. And after you’ve done it for a few weeks, build on it!

3. Follow the 3 R’s of Habit Formation

Ah, the popular behavior science catchphrase. So what are the 3 R’s?

a- Reminder: These are the cues that trigger your new habit! The more reminders the merrier. So, an obvious one is having a reminder in the calendar of your phone. The other important reminders are visual ones. You want to create an environment that encourages and inspires your new habit of exercise! So that list of your ‘why’s you’ll write and stick somewhere? That’s one of them. If you’re working out at home- have your exercise clothes and ‘supplies’ ready the night before, put out in a place you can see them. If you’re going to the gym- have your gym bag packed and ready ahead of time beside the door. Got some inspirational quotes or posters? Whatever tickles your fancy. Find the visuals that will help keep you on track!

b- Routine: Well this one is obvious. It’s the thing that your reminder is reminding you to do. In this case: exercise!

c- Reward: Often overlooked or underplayed, is the reward. Rewards are important, especially if you are starting a habit that doesn’t really excite you, and which at first, you may not particularly enjoy. A reward should be positive enforcement of your new habit, not something that counters it. Scarfing down a burger right after is thus, not advised. You could create a monetary reward, putting away a tiny bit of money each day so at the end of the month you can buy yourself something special. Or you can get a delicious smoothie or latte later in the day. Sometimes the best reward is acknowledging and celebrating the achievement of completing your new habit. Even if it sounds silly, a mental pat on the back, gratitude to yourself, releases more dopamine and helps to sustain your habit. It’s science. So make Rewards part of your routine. Okay, moving on.

4. Use failure as fuel

This is a great one. How you respond to failure expresses a lot about your self-esteem and sense of worth. Shifting how you respond to failure can also really nourish both those things. So if you skip a day for whatever reason, don’t beat yourself up. But don’t let yourself off the hook either! Use failure as fuel: Look at why your habit fell apart. What were the roadblocks? They might be external or internal or both. Just take a moment, figure out what they are, and adjust accordingly. Failure is simply a way to learn, to improve, to fine-tune. Appreciate it, and keep going. Having this approach to failure will make you more resilient to challenges elsewhere in your life too!

5. Commit to a minimum of 30 days.

Last but not least- there is no specific number of days you can count to be certain that your new ‘habit’ will stick. But most behavior scientists confirm that people need a minimum of 30 days. So adjust your perspective. Instead of starting your new habit trying to figure out how you can possibly keep it going for the whole next year, focus on doing it for a month. And when the month is up? Well, you build on it. Remember, it’s all about creating strong foundations, and stacking on top of them!

That’s all folks. There you go. 2020. In it to win it! Make exercise an easy, repeated, rewarded, well-anchored commitment! And do let us know how you do with these tips. The Wellness Project always loves to hear from you.

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