3 Ways to Make Your Exercise Habit Stick

Woman running outside with a friend

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When it comes to exercise, one thing we often focus on is motivation—not only getting motivated but also staying motivated. While it may seem like motivation is the first thing we need to make exercise a regular occurrence, this isn't necessarily the case.

Ask any exerciser if they're really motivated to get up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym and they'll probably say no. Does anyone really feel like exercising first thing in the morning? Not likely. The key is to create an exercise habit.

Motivation may not be the first thing that gets an exerciser out of bed, although it is still an important element.

What Is a Habit?

A habit is a behavioral pattern we perform repeatedly and consistently. You probably have hundreds of them, from how you get ready in the morning to the way you fold your laundry.

Habits often happen automatically and the more we do them, the deeper they're embedded in our brains. One specific part of the brain, the basal ganglia, rules our routines and habits. It's what kicks in when you're doing something without much thought, like loading the dishwasher or driving a car.

You don't have to think about how to open the dishwasher, pick up a dish, and put it in. Nor do you have to think of the hundreds of movements you need to do to drive a car—get the keys, open the door, sit down, put on your seatbelt, etc.

This automation allows you to do these things without thinking, freeing up brain space for more important things. But the only way you make these behaviors automatic is by doing them over and over so you don't have to think about them anymore.

If you haven't been able to stick to an exercise habit, it's may not be because you're doing something wrong. It might be that your brain needs some re-wiring.

Elements to Making a Habit Stick

Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit," suggests there are three important elements to how we create habits. We need a cue, a behavior, and a reward.

One example of a cue is putting your workout clothes next to the bed. As soon as you get up, you see the clothes and this is your cue to put them on in preparation for your workout. The behavior is completing your workout and the reward might be feeling good about yourself or taking a long, hot shower with your favorite products.

Duhigg goes on to say that there are two other things you need to make a habit work, especially with exercise: a craving for the reward and the belief that you can actually do the workout you've planned.  

How to Create Your New Exercise Habit

Working out involves a bunch of small behaviors. When added up, it can feel like a lot. Once you realize how hard the process is, the reward may pale in comparison to the amount of work you'll have to put in. This is especially true if your goal is to lose weight, a process that is usually very slow.

That's just one reason many of us fail to stick with an exercise habit, even though we want to be healthy and/or lose weight. So, how do you do it?

Plan Your Cues

Think of a cue as something that triggers your brain to think, "This is the time to exercise." This might be:

  • Scheduling your workouts on your calendar. Pick times and days you know you can squeeze in exercise, even if it's just 5 minutes. Plan to walk after lunch every day or take a walk after dinner.
  • Putting on your workout clothes as soon as you wake up or right when you get home from work.
  • Doing some other healthy behavior before your workout. Drink a glass of water, take some deep breaths, go for a quick walk, or do some stretches. Sometimes, taking one simple action can put you in the mindset of exercise.
  • Write down your workout plan and put it next to the bed so it's the first thing you see when you wake up.

At the same time you're doing this, look at other cues you may have been following, the ones that trigger your urge to skip your workout. Maybe you hit the snooze button instead of getting up and working out, for instance, or you go straight to the couch after work and not the gym.

Just as you may have a habit of sitting on the couch, you can create a new habit of exercising instead.

Plan Your Workouts

This is the behavior element—the critical part and often where we make our biggest mistakes. Because we're so eager to lose weight, wanting to make up for lost time, we tend to go too far with our workouts.

Maybe you try to go back to a level of exercise you used to be able to sustain, or you plan your workouts based on what you think you're supposed to do. This can affect your decision about how often to work out, what type of exercise to do, and how much weight to lift.

The problem with this approach is that you will likely get very sore, possibly injured, and question why anyone would do this to themselves. Yet, the only way to really make exercise a habit is to make your workouts so easy and doable that it feels silly not to do them.

One of the key ingredients to making this happen is the belief that you can successfully create an exercise habit, also known as self-efficacy. This involves creating a workout you know you can do, even if it isn't close to the exercise guidelines.

Sample Workout Options

Forget working out for an hour or doing hardcore cardio training and think more about workouts you can do no matter what. Consider routines you can complete even when you're tired, stressed, or low on motivation. Here are a few options to consider:

  • 5-minute walk: Set a goal for just five minutes every day. Chances are you'll keep going a little longer than that.
  • Quick and easy core workout: This workout includes seven simple exercises that focus on building a strong core.
  • Beginner ball workout: This easy-to-follow workout has simple, feel-good exercises that are perfect for introducing your body to exercise. It's also good for balance and stability.
  • Body weight exercises: Another way to keep things simple is to choose a few exercises that don't require any equipment. Try a squat, pushup, lunge, crunches, and back extensions.

Do one set of about 10 to 16 reps of each exercise. As you get stronger, do add another set, and then another.

Plan Your Rewards

Some rewards of exercise come naturally. Just completing a workout can feel good and, over time, if you're consistent, you'll crave that feeling. You can also create your own rewards, such as:

  • A guilt-free hour of TV
  • A glass of wine with dinner
  • Paying yourself (give yourself $5 for every workout you complete, for example, and plan what you'll get with that money at the end of the month)
  • Taking a hot bath
  • Reading a new book
  • Downloading new songs to your workout playlist
  • Downloading a new app (Charity Miles allows you to earn money for charity while you walk, run, bike, or do any kind of activity)

The point is to reward yourself every single time you workout so you start to crave that reward.

Additional Tips for Making Your Exercise Habit Stick

There are a few other things you can do to reinforce your new exercise habit. These include:

  • Do your workouts at the same time every day, if at all possible.
  • Create a ritual around your workout. Put on your workout clothes first thing in the morning or, if you're leaving from the office, put your gym bag in the seat next to you so seeing it will remind you of your goals.
  • Log your workouts. Keep a calendar and put an 'X' on every day you exercise.
  • Do something you like. You don't have to love exercise, but it should be an activity you enjoy as well as being one you know you can do without too much pain or discomfort.
  • Focus on the habit first, then the results. Too often, we're so focused on losing weight that we end up quitting when it doesn't happen soon enough. Instead, focus on doing the workouts versus paying so much attention to the results.

A Word From Verywell

The key to creating an exercise habit is to make it as easy as possible to do your workouts. Choose accessible activities that you like, keep your workouts simple, and focus on just showing up.

Getting started is often the hardest part, so the easier you can make that, the more successful you'll be. Line up your cue, your behavior, and your reward, and soon you'll have a habit that comes naturally.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Baladron J, Hamker F. Habit learning in hierarchical cortex-basal ganglia loops. Europ J Neurosci. 2020;52(12):4613-4638. doi:10.1111/ejn.14730

  2. Duhigg C. The Power of Habit. Random House Publishing, 2012.

Additional Reading

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."