There are many good reasons why we should exercise: Stronger bones, stronger heart, can aid weight loss, can make us feel physically and mentally better…. Yet, it can be so hard to get started?
Often it is because we jump straight to the end goal, without thinking of the habits that need to be established on the way. So how can we reach our exercise destination?
Creating the Habit
A habit is an automatic action. Something done without a second thought. These actions are generally based on a cue, a system, and a reward. Take, for example, locking your car.
Exercise as a routine part of your life is the main goal. To reach this goal several habits need to be established; interventions to change current behaviours. They will make sure your exercise habit does not become a seven-day wonder (or even worse, you do not get past day one).
The interventions start as conscious decisions. But continuously repeating the action, and with a bit of patience, it will become a habit. Think of the actions you do automatically, without a second thought. It was not always that way. You had to learn how to do that action over a period of time.
Say you want to get to a point where on waking, you automatically put on your gym kit, which means your next stop is the place you will do your workout, which leads to actually doing the exercise. To start, a conscious decision needs to be made to get up early so all the necessary steps to get to do the exercise can be made. How can you break the habit of staying in bed a bit longer to creating the habit of jumping out of bed and into your gym kit?
Let’s break down the cue, system, reward technique to create this new habit.
Workout clothes are ready for when you wake up. There is no hunting around for bits of kit.
For myself, to get to this position I have implemented these habits/conscious decisions:
Getting up straight away and putting the gym kit on.
If you have followed the previous cue, your gym kit should be in a convenient location, and you are good to go. But getting up straight away may require additional cues. You may need to put your alarm somewhere where you have to get out of bed to turn it off.
Once you start analysing the behaviours you have, and the behaviours you want, it will become clear the interventions you need to adopt so you can make exercise a way of life.
The reward needs to be looked at as long-, medium-, and short term.
The medium-term reward is with this cue and system you are likely to get to the gym to do a workout.
The long-term reward will be the changes regular consistent training makes to your body and its benefits to all aspects of your health. Your fitness levels will increase. You will become stronger. Your flexibility will improve. Your heart health will be better.
There will be a knock-on effect to other aspects of your life. You may adopt a healthier way of eating. You will feel mentally stronger which may make you able to tackle difficult decisions. You will be able to accomplish more because you feel mentally and physically stronger.
The short-term reward needs to be immediate to help you move onto the next step and make this a habit. It may be as simple as crossing this action of the to-do list for the day. You have accomplished something, it is still early, and you feel good.
But will doing the actual workout become a habit?
Doing the actual workout probably will not become a habit. This is because some thought has to be given to the training you will do that day/week. It is unlikely you will automatically start the routine without a second thought.
But it can become a positive behaviour you are happy to action. To reach this point steps need to be built in which become habits (such as laying your gym kit out the night before).
How do I do it?
For me, exercise as the main goal is not a habit. However, I have made many interventions which are now habits. These are part of my daily and weekly routine. They enable me to make exercise a positive conscious decision, especially when it is a hard decision. Although I enjoy exercise and the fruits of my workouts, I find my motivation waning if I need to work out later in the day. Sometimes though, this is my only option. I know I will not regret the workout once I am doing it, but I need to engage habits to make sure I start and my willpower does not weaken.
How do I do this? On Sundays, I plan my week out. I diarise my gym sessions. The cue - Sunday weekly planning. The result - workouts are diarised so I complete the number of sessions I need to do that week. The reward - I fit in all my gym sessions for the week and I feel fit, healthy and happy.
None of this will happen overnight. Somethings will work, some won’t. But by taking this journey step by step, you can reach the exercise destination.