I’m delighted that Maria Brilaki from Fitness Reloaded has written this piece for Dietetically Speaking about establishing regular exercise habits; as this is so central to leading a healthy lifestyle. Maria supports a very evidence based message when it comes to health advice and has helped lots of people to create long term exercise habits, she has also written a best-selling book about habits called “Surprisingly… Unstuck: The power of small healthy habits in a world addicted to instant results”. Take it away Maria!
(Note: although I have an affiliate partnership with Maria this post does not contain any sponsorship or affiliate links – see my disclosure policy for further details)
Most people know that they should be exercising but struggle to get into the swing of this consistently, this can be for a combination of factors such as:
- They think they’re not motivated enough
- They think they’re not disciplined enough
- They’re unsure how to make exercise fit into their busy schedule
- They feel like exercise is a chore that they “should” do and hate that they need to include it in their lives
Because they don’t particularly love exercise, people often resort to tactics to discipline themselves such as: fighting with themselves with threats to “get off the couch or…”, glueing pictures of skinny people onto their fridge or sticking motivational quotes all over their desk. But unfortunately in 99% of cases the result will be pure exhaustion; talk about frustration!
The thing is that if you really care about making exercise part of your life, not just for a few weeks or months but for years, this ‘whipping yourself into shape’ approach cannot work.
The pattern often looks like this: you start out with excitement and the first weeks flow by, then you skip a workout because something came up at work, then you skip a workout because you really didn’t feel like doing it. So you think you need more motivation to stay on your ‘discipline’ game, you try harder and continue for a few more weeks but eventually life gets in the way and you call it quits; not because you made the rational decision to quit, but because of neglect.
It’s like being in a relationship where you don’t break up officially, but the boyfriend or girlfriend you stop calling gets the message that it’s over, you just stop exercising. Internally you may even be saying to yourself you’ll “get back to it when…”.
So what happened here? Most of us call motivation the surge we feel when we suddenly get hit by the ‘motivation wave’; like when we join a gym, sign up to a yoga class, start learning a new language, or start writing a book (there are many applications of this beyond exercise). This surge is not supposed to be there all the time for the rest of our lives; this surge will come, get us into action, and then go. That’s when you need something other than motivation to keep you writing that book if you ever want it to be finished.
Now imagine if exercise was a part of your daily life, just like brushing your teeth, imagine never having to debate whether to exercise or not with yourself, imagine exercising daily just like you drink your morning coffee.
But how do you make exercise a regular part of your lifestyle without having to “discipline” yourself into doing it?
Now that you’ve recognised that discipline and motivation aren’t the only things to focus on, let’s talk about creating habits. Cambridge dictionary defines a habit as “something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it”.
Let me guess: as soon as you get in the car you put your seatbelt on? I’ll take another guess: after you wake up in the morning, you go to the bathroom? And if I’m right, you don’t consciously think that you should put your seatbelt on, or that you should go to the bathroom, you ‘just do it’. In fact, if I were to ask you right now which hand you use to put your seatbelt on, you’d have to pause and think about it. Even though you do this all the time, the whole thing has become so automatic that the information is not consciously available right away. So when you think about it, putting your seatbelt on and going to the bathroom after you wake up are already established habits.
When you do something without fail, without even thinking about it, that’s when you know that this behaviour has become a habit.
If you were to make exercise a habit would you have to think about it? No, you’d just go along with your routine. Would you have to motivate yourself to do it? Not at all. Do you need motivation to go the bathroom or put your seatbelt on?
When exercise is an established habit, you don’t have to play the discipline game as people who’ve made habits tend to do these consistently, almost religiously, not because they force themselves to do it, but because it’s what they do and they enjoy it; just like how they eat breakfast every day or read stories to their kids at night.
And that’s exactly why habits are so powerful – because once you make the right behaviour a habit, you can then set it on autopilot to keep doing the right thing. And on the flip-side that’s also why bad habits are trouble because we can automatically repeat unhealthy behaviours.
Now that we have explored how important it is to focus on creating habits rather than beating yourself up for not feeling motivated, how do you establish the habit in the first place?
Establishing achievable mini-habits is a great place to start. You can learn more about mini-habits from this TEDTalk by Stanford Prof. BJ Fogg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdKUJxjn-R8 or you can sign-up to my free mini habit week to start exercising next Monday, and never stop again!
In this 7 day programme you will learn how to build your first mini exercise habit by starting with just 2 reps a day!
- No more exercising for a month or two and then giving up, losing all your results. Exercising will become a permanent habit.
- No more pushing yourself to get off the couch. You’ll find it easy to “just do it.”
- No more buying a home treadmill that you’ll stop using 0r signing up to an exercise class that you won’t complete, or exercise DVDs that will collect dust. You’ll be following through and loving it!
- Become THAT person who can’t live without exercise!
Sounds exciting? Sign up here!