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Keeping up with regular exercise, just like most good things for you, comes down to building and maintaining habits. It’s not always easy to throw on those sweats and make the trek to the gym or the park when the comfort of your pillow is so much more inviting – especially on a cold morning. But there are ways to make that sweat a little more inviting, possibly even fun!
First, let’s start with: why exercise at all? There are obvious numerous physical benefits to exercise ranging from reduced risk of heart disease & Type II diabetes to more physical strength for everyday activities. These benefits are simply too numerous to list in a single post and should really be common knowledge at this point for anyone over the age of 10. But the hidden benefits to exercise lie not in the body but in the impact to the mind.
- Regular exercise is critical to good focus. Studies over the years have shown that even light to moderate exercise can make a material difference in someone’s ability to achieve mental clarity. A 2004 study at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that “aging adults who give up a sedentary lifestyle and replace it with a cardiovascular fitness regimen as simple as brisk walks reap greater focus and reduced decision-making conflict as they perform a variety of tasks”. This is just one of many, many studies like this.
John Medina, a brain development expert and author of Brain Rules, lists exercise as “rule #1 to boost brain power” and shows how brain function rises with regular exercise and falls once that exercise stops! He says that exercise is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet.
- Discipline and coordination in the body translates to discipline and coordination in the mind. It’s a simple formula: get active with your body and watch your mind follow. I’ve certainly seen this in my own life; the times when I’m physically active are the times when I’m making sure to floss, keep my closet clean, starting and finishing more projects, and generally being more focused.
This really speaks to a couple things happening: 1) Because I feel “in control” in one key part of my life, my physical activity, I’m free to start exploring other areas, and 2) Because I’m learning to control my body physically, this confidence starts to spill over into other areas.
Both of those bullets are prime for some follow-up posts. But for now, with some of the “why” behind us, let’s focus on the “how”. How do we make exercise a regular activity such that we can be consistent day-in and day-out? These tips all center around one single theme: Putting exercise into automatic mode. In other words: make it a real habit, just like brushing your teeth or walking the dog. Take all thinking and processing out of it. Let’s get started:
- Realize that staying in shape is easier than getting in shape. If you’ve been on the “get in shape, fall out of shape” cycle for a while like many of us, you’ll notice pretty quickly that getting in shape is not always easy. It takes a lot more effort to get in shape than it does to maintain it. Just internalizing this can be somewhat curative because you can train yourself to value the time you spent getting in shape – value it enough that you don’t want to go through it again!
- Pack your bag when you get back from exercising for the next trip. This is something I’ve been doing for years yet it’s always surprised me how many people don’t do this. It’s probably the simplest thing you can do to make exercise automatic: as you’re unpacking your bag after a workout, start to fill it with clothes/snacks/whatever for your next workout. This removes a big part of the most common excuse in the book: feeling too lazy. When your bag is already packed, what’s holding you back?
- Always plan to eat 1-2 hours before a workout. Far too often I’ve just been too hungry to workout – and once I’ve eaten, I need time to digest before exercise. Before you know it, too much time has passed and I’ve missed my window. I’ve started making sure to eat 1-2 hours before a workout so I can’t use food as an excuse; I do this by planning both my meals and my meal times in advance. This is now just a habit that I don’t really have to think about anymore.
- Hold yourself accountable. Track your progress visually somehow. If you’re someone who feeds off of other people’s energy, make sure to hold yourself accountable through them. Tell them what you’re doing and ask them to follow-up with you regularly. I find that what works best for me is to keep a simple “chain” or goal checklist. Two great sites for this are Joe’s Goals and Don’t Break the Chain. When you can see your missteps visually (either on a screen or on paper) you’re more likely to try and avoid them.
- Write-up 4-6 weeks of workouts in advance. Take all the guesswork out of exercise by spending 10-20 minutes every month or two to write-up your routine. Just like some of these other tips, if the process of exercising has minimal cognitive overhead for you, you’re more likely to go on auto-pilot. Add these workouts to your calendar with reminders and guard the time ruthlessly. Always include at least one thing you love in each workout, and one thing you don’t particularly like (because these are usually the hardest and therefore the best for you!)
- Arrange for an appointment near the gym/park/track. Sometimes just getting there is the hard part, whether it’s the tedium of the drive or the annoyance of trying to find a parking spot. See if you can’t schedule appointments, social lunches, or meetings with friends somewhere nearby. If you’re already going to be close by, it’s just going to be that much harder to get back into your car or hop on the bus to avoid the workout.
- Mix up your audio entertainment. One thing I’ve found over my fifteen years of training is that the times I most look forward to working out are the times I have new music, an audiobook, or a great podcast to listen to. The best invention for people who actually look forward to rocking out to new music during a workout is the Zune Pass, which gives you unlimited access to music for $14.99/month. You can drag almost any album under the sun right onto your Zune to take with you to the gym. For those who would rather learn, Audible.com or some fun podcasts can make all the difference. If you’re dreading the sweat, you can at least look forward to hearing what happens next in your favorite novel!
Hope this helps! There are so many ways to make exercise a regular habit; this is just a start. Does anyone have any other tips or tricks?