How to Develop a Sustainable Exercise Habit

I recently had a conversation with a friend and coworker who has an on-again off-again relationship with exercise. My friend is highly-motivated in life in general and understands the value and importance of being active. Why do they struggle to maintain an ongoing habit of regular exercise?

For many years I had an on-again off-again relationship with exercise. However, for the last few years I’ve been very consistent about regularly getting in some kind of exercise.

This observation has caused me to spend some time today reflecting on what it is that changed. How have I managed to exercise consistently for the past few years? As I think about my relationship to exercise today, there are a few pieces to the puzzle that I think have been important in keeping me locked-in and consistent.

I’m going to explain the specific things that have kept me motivated and consistent and then try to draw a generalized principle from the specific things I do. If you, like my friend, find yourself struggling with exercise consistency, maybe you’ll find a key in one of these principles to unlock some exercise consistency in your own life.

A Little Consistency Goes a Long Way

I’m ok with only getting in a 15 minute bodyweight workout and calling that “strength training.” I don’t enjoy strength training very much. I’m a runner and I really enjoy running. Strength training is something I do so I can run and minimize my chances of injury. When it comes to strength training, I don’t put a lot of weight on myself (pun intended).

My philosophy on strength training is that consistently doing some strength training is great. I emphasize consistency. So when it comes to strength training, I give myself a lot of slack on how hard I work out. Working out super hard isn’t the goal. Working out consistently is the goal.

To get practical for a minute, this means that if I do a 15-minute bodyweight workout four days in a week, I’m satisfied. Push, pull, core, and legs, 15 minutes each, hit each at least once per week, and I’m patting myself on the back.

Now, there are times when I do feel like going hard (usually after watching some ridiculous handstand calisthenics reel on Instagram), and when I feel that way, I do work out hard. However, those days don’t come very often, so most days I do a quick 15-20 minute workout.

The same principle applies to running. Most of the time, my runs are pretty easy. I do push when I’m feeling up to it both physically and mentally, but most of my efforts are at a 4 to 6 out of 10 in terms of effort.

A little consistency applied over a number of years will win out over an intense program I can’t sustain over time.

Keep it Fun

I really like running in races. They’re a blast. I generally keep anywhere from one to four races on the schedule out in front of me.

I’m not competitive at most of the races I run. I don’t run to win, I run because I genuinely enjoy these races, and having these races on my calendar gives me something to anchor the rest of my training around.

My next race is the Brasstown Bald Buster 5k at the end of the month. I’m coming off a two-week recovery break following the Georgia Death Race, and working through some plantar fasciitis issues, so I don’t expect to do tremendously well, but between now and the end of the month I’m gearing my training towards the demands of that race as much as possible. Races are fun for me and keeping one on the calendar helps to keep me motivated to train.

The other thing I do to keep it fun is to find interesting ways to train. For example, one thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time is run out in the WMA connecting the Chenocetah Fire Tower and the summit of Currahee in one route. Another example is that on several occasions I’ve identified Strava segments I want to set a personal or course record on and then designed or timed specific runs to make a run at setting those records. I want to do a lot more of these sorts of things in the future and to really emphasize these sort of fun backyard adventures as a core part of my training philosophy.

Make it Easy

I work out in my basement. I leave my workout shoes untied next to my workout area. I make it super easy to work out.

Most of my runs start when I step out my front door. If I want to run in the woods I usually start at the nearest trailhead which is about 10 minutes from my front door.

I get in my exercise at the same time every weekday. I get up at 6:30, get the kids out the door by 7:15, and then I start whatever my prescribed workout is for that day.

Being consistent is a lot easier when you remove as many barriers as possible. So when it comes to exercise, I try to eliminate barriers that might otherwise stop me from working out.

I don’t have to leave my house to work out. I don’t even have to go looking for my shoes. I don’t have to go somewhere to get in my runs. If I do want to run on trails, I make that as easy as possible. I don’t put myself in the position of having to get up early to workout. I work out at the first available opportunity after something else (my kids getting to school) has forced me to get up. As much as possible, I’ve made working out and getting in my regular runs something that just happens with as little friction as possible.

Enjoy the Process

I’ve mentioned three things I think have helped me be a consistently active person over the last few years:

  1. I emphasize consistency rather than intensity
  2. I bring in an element of fun by running races or going on backyard adventures
  3. I eliminate barriers and make it easy to get in some exercise

I think a shorter way of saying all of this is that I try to make exercise something I enjoy. I enjoy the process of exercising. If you can build exercise into your life in such a way that you genuinely enjoy the process, then exercise becomes an easy habit to maintain. However, if the process is too hard, or a chore, it’s probably something that’s going to slip by the wayside over time.

So that’s the takeaway: if you want to develop a sustainable exercise habit, find a way to enjoy the process.

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