A Fool-proof Formula to Making Your Fitness Habit Stick This Time


 It took me a long time to get to a place where I work out regularly. A few years back in college my fitness routine looked kind of like this:

6 amAlarm goes off for my pre-planned, pre-classes workout. Lying in bed I decide that I’m really not a morning person and reschedule for after school. Sleep for another 45min.

2 pmHome from classes. I’m too full from lunch. I will definitely still do it, but only after a nap.

4.30 pmNeed to clear my head from the nap first. I can probably best do that by meeting friends. Reschedule for 7pm. That’s perfect, it will tire me and help me sleep.

6.30 pmStart watching one of my favorite series (“just one episode and then I’ll work out”). Of course I own the DVD-box and there is no such thing as one episode.

8 pmI’m hungry. Gotta have dinner. Doing sports on an empty stomach is not good for you, everybody knows that.

9 pm - Decide that now it’s too late to do any sports because it’s close to bedtime and will just keep me up. I vow to get some weight lifting done the next morning (“this time for real and twice as hard”).

6 am - Wake up to the sound of my alarm. Tired from the night, I decide to postpone to the weekend.

To call my work-out schedule haphazard would be an insult to the good name of haphazard. I am betting that a lot of people out there can relate.

Why most people fail

They are unspecific – How many of you put “do more sports” or “eat better” on your list of resolutions for 2013? Well, my goal this year is to “become smarter”. How will I know I’ve gotten smarter you ask? I don’t know, really. How will I go about getting smarter then? Jeez, what’s with all the questions? Leave me alone and do more sports.

They want too much, too fast – Here’s the what many people say to themselves when they start out: “From now on until the end of time I will go to the gym four times a week for at least an hour. I will spend 30 minutes on the elliptical and then another 30-60 minutes lifting weights. Wow, my couch is really cozy. Wait, is that a bag of chips?”

They make it overly complicated – So you want to start running. Go into a store for running equipment, say exactly that and here’s you’ll be walking out with: new running shoes (extra cushioned), ubertight running pants (too much information!), and a little belt that holds tiny water bottles. For some extra cash, throw in a headlight for night runs, some performance gels, and a heart rate monitor. For heaven’s sake, don’t forget the heart rate monitor.

They don’t follow through or don’t start at all – I am a chronic starter. I love the beginning of undertakings, when everything is fresh and new. However, when the novelty wears off I struggle with compliance. Other people do not even get started at all. They want to, but they wait for the elusive “perfect moment” that never seems to come (fanfares, clouds part and god’s voice thunders down “now is the time you change your life!”).

How you can succeed

If you recognized yourself in the writing above, don’t worry, you are not alone. It took me months and years to make fitness a regular part of my life. Below you find a formula that I now use to integrate any kind of behavioral change and that can help put you on the track.

The key to succeeding in making life changes is to form new habits. If a desired behavior has become a habit, you do it automatically and don’t even have to think about it. Like brushing your teeth before bedtime. You might even start missing it.

How to form the fitness habit:

Make it small – It’s far more important to create the habit in the first place, you can always scale up later. Aiming for an hour of gym time from the get-go is a big change and harder to adhere to. So don’t go for an hour, go for five minutes. Don’t go for a five-mile run, jog around the block once. Again, aim for starting and habitualization, you can always scale up.

Make it temporary – I quit drinking coffee recently and did it pretty much cold Turkey. But instead of going for “I will never drink coffee again!”, I only committed to abstain for one day at a time (caffeine-free since 2012, baby!). This also works for creating habits. Limit your new workout schedule to the next two weeks. This creates a much lower entrance barrier.

Keep it simple – Watch Barney Stinson explain how to run a marathon. The key is to get started instead of staying in preparation phase. Sweat pants, a shirt, and gym shoes are enough for most sports in the beginning (even less if you choose swimming). Don’t get hung up on gimmicks. While some professional equipment definitely makes sense later, you really don’t need it at first.

Make it conscious – Put a picture of your old self on the fridge or some other place where you can see it; lay your folded gym clothes out on a chair in your bedroom; put your running shoes in front of the door so you only have put them on and get outside. These things will be like pebbles in your shoe reminding you of the habit you want to change or pick up.

Create accountability – Self-discipline and will power are overrated. A better way to motivate yourself is to be held accountable in some way. There are several ways to do that:

  • Get a workout buddy - It’s more fun than working out alone and you can motivate each other. Make an appointment, mark it in your calendar and keep it.

  • Loss aversion and competition - Make a bet with a friend to see which one of you can make the biggest difference in their lives. Put some cash on the line. Choose an amount you’d feel uncomfortable losing.

  • Go public - Write a blog about your journey. Post your intentions on facebook. Tell your friends and family. It will create positive peer pressure.

Aim for five times – Habits are what you repeatedly do. On the flipside that means, habits get created through repetition. So if you want to make something stick, do it more often. According to Tim Ferris and Nike+, five sessions seem to be the magical number after which an action starts becoming ingrained. Aim for these five sessions. And always only focus on the very next one.

here it is in short form

  • make it small

  • make it temporary

  • keep it simple

  • make it conscious

  • create accountability

  • aim for five times

Do 5 pushups today. Take a walk around the block. You can do it. It takes less than 2 minutes.

Have you failed at sticking to your fitness habit in the past? What was the reason? What step are you going to take now in order to avoid the same mistake? Be specific.

Image: Flickr

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