Exercising is beneficial. It improves our physical health and protects our mental balance. It is not a secret to anyone. However, creating the habit of exercising is another matter entirely. We have so many daily obligations and busy schedules that making room to practice sports seems almost an impossible mission.
Many times we start running, going to the gym or doing yoga, but motivation and willpower fade as days or weeks go by, so we give up even before we start to notice positive changes. The secret to integrating sport into our lives is to create a habit.
5 tips backed by science to create the habit of exercising
1. Prepare mentally to persevere, at least for the first two months
A habit is a regular routine. But before we integrate it into our life and it becomes something we do automatically, we have to put in some effort. A study carried out at University College London with 96 people who were followed for 12 weeks revealed that, on average, it takes 66 repetitions for a new healthy behavior, whether it is eating an apple or going for a run, to become a habit.
Therefore, creating a habit does not happen overnight. You have to be willing to persevere through those first two months. You better make sure you plan those days well, free up space in your schedule and anticipate potential obstacles. This way you won’t be tempted to give in before the habit is established.
2. Success depends on objectives, so they must be specific and realistic
Every habit starts with a goal. In fact, the goals we set for ourselves can either motivate or sabotage us. A goal that is too ambitious can discourage us because we feel that we will never reach it. Instead, a meta-analysis conducted at the University of California revealed that when it comes to exercise, it’s better to set specific, achievable goals.
To build a habit, we have to remember that doing something is better than doing nothing. However, the goal is not to resign yourself to “better than nothing”, but rather to avoid adding too much pressure at the start. Setting yourself achievable goals will avoid the frustration that comes from not being able to achieve them, and instead will give you more instant gratification that will keep you motivated. Therefore, set workable routines and start with small steps that allow you to gradually progress towards bigger goals.
3. Better reward yourself for effort than punish yourself for setbacks
In the process of creating the habit of exercising, it is natural for setbacks to occur. There will be days when motivation or willpower is not with us. However, we must keep in mind that rewards work better than punishments. A study conducted at Harvard Business School went one step further, revealing that when it comes to rewarding ourselves, we shouldn’t be too hard.
These researchers discovered that to encourage a sports routine it is better to use flexible rewards; that is, reward ourselves for the effort rather than for the results. The first objective is repetition, not great achievements. Treating yourself kindly and encouraging you with small rewards will help you stay motivated, build the habit, and stick with it over time. Once you’ve established the habit, you can start rewarding yourself for the milestones you reach.
4. Make up for missed sessions to maintain a sense of control
The course of life sometimes gets in the way of our exercise routine, even when it’s already in place. Overwork, vacations or illness can ruin our plans and, once routine is lost, we can feel that nothing makes sense anymore. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Toronto found that when dieters believe they have eaten too much, even though they haven’t, they are more likely to forget about dietary restrictions and can eat up to 50% more than who are not on a diet.
To prevent all the effort you’ve put in during the first few weeks goes to waste, the key is to make a small token effort that allows you to “make up” for the sessions you missed. If you missed your gym session because you had to work late, for example, you can do 10 minutes of free body exercises when you get home. This way you will avoid thinking that you are back at the starting point, you will regain the feeling of control and be able to maintain the habit.
5. Share the goals with friends to increase the level of commitment
Feeling social pressure is not always negative. If we want to create a habit, share it with our partner, friends or close people can be of great help to stay firm in our purpose. Researchers from the Dominican University of California found that when people write down their goals and share them with friends or family, the chances that they can achieve their goals increase by 33%.
Those who set goals but kept them to themselves had only a 50% chance of reaching those goals. However, the prospect of success increased by 75% among those who talked about their goals and shared the small achievements they were achieving. Communicating your goals not only means acquiring a social commitment, but it also makes those people more likely to support you, thus helping you to create the habit and maintain it over time.
Finally, another of the great secrets to create the habit of exercising is to choose a sport that you like, enjoy and excites you. Don’t get carried away by fashions. You’re unlikely to make exercise a habit if you choose something that doesn’t fit your personality.
Beshears, J. et. Al. (2021) Creating Exercise Habits Using Incentives: The Tradeoff between Flexibility and Routinization. Manage Science; 67(7): 3985-4642.
Matthews, G. (2015) Study backs up strategies for achieving goals. In: Dominican University of California.
Lally, P. et. Al. (2010) How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology; 40(6): 998-1009.
Polivy, J. et. Al. (2010) Getting a bigger slice of the pie. Effects on eating and emotion in restrained and unrestrained eaters. Appretite; 55(3): 426-430.
Shilts, M. K. et. Al. (2004) Goal setting as a strategy for dietary and physical activity behavior change: a review of the literature. Am J Health Promot; 19(2): 81-93.