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Expert Perspectives

How to Create an Exercise Habit

By Stephen Salzmann, Medcan Director of Fitness, and Anna Topali, Fitness Manager

Making time for fitness is scientifically proven to benefit both physical and emotional health.

Human beings jump through a lot of hoops to feel rejuvenated. They book time at spas, save up for vacations and invest in expensive mattresses to make sure their sleep is restorative. What feels irrational to us is that some of us are not pursuing one of the easiest and most convenient ways to reinvigorate themselves on a daily basis—and that’s exercise.

Depression, stress, fatigue—the science suggests that such emotions can be curtailed with increased physical activity, regardless of whether it’s resistance training or a form of aerobic exercise. And with gyms, yoga studios and spin classrooms now open, it’s a great time to start an exercise regimen.

Now let’s translate that desire into action. Beginning exercisers who transition to lifelong fitness habits tend to share some common characteristics. Here are a few to get you started.

Pick one thing and do it well

In a recent Eat Move Think podcast episode, pressure expert Dane Jensen observed that the human brain is limited to paying attention to just one thing at a time. Our experience suggests that optimal behaviour change rewards a similarly limited focus. Commit to building one single new behaviour into your life at a time. Once that habit becomes routine, then move onto the next one. Bonus points if your change qualifies as a keystone habit—a routine that creates a beneficial domino effect throughout your life. For example, going to the gym can create a ripple effect that provides you with more restful sleep, which leaves you in a better mood, which helps you perform better at work.

Set small and achievable goals

It’s far better to use restraint when making a list of desired exercise outcomes. One of our clients summed up the advice this way: “I try to make it easy for myself so I can’t say no.” This is particularly important in the early stages of an exercise habit, when the overarching goal should be to create a positive association with the thought of exercise. Want to eventually work up to 50 push ups a day? Employ the “achievable goal” principle by beginning with something much easier, like five or 10 push ups. Then, once you’ve repeated it enough times, you can worry about increasing the intensity.

Pay attention to the behaviour, not the outcome

Now that you’ve set a achievable goal, consider the processes that set you up for success. Our clients tend to be high achievers who naturally lean toward outcome mindsets. But an outcome mindset can often create pressure—and we’ve found the clients who come out most consistently to our gym are the ones who link their physical activity with fun. So try to focus on the process of exercise. Try to create rituals around your workouts, which, if repeated with regularity, can become automatic and no longer require conscious effort to perpetuate. Rituals include setting clothes in the bathroom every night so you can easily get dressed for that early workout. Think of it this way: If you want a new habit, you have to fall in love with a new ritual.

Change your Environment

One final thing stands out about the many beginning exercisers who have developed lifelong fitness habits. Their transitions tended to include changes to their environments. One of our clients set up his new tech-enabled exercise bike in his unfinished basement, near the furnace and a jumble of bankers boxes and ski equipment. But he found himself dreading the time in that dank environment. So he tidied the boxes, invested in some drywall and paint and now considers his new workout area one of the most pleasant parts of his home—and exercises several more times a week. Remember: New habits are easier to continue if you perform them in an environment that promotes the new habit.

The Takeaway: Every habit you have today, good or bad, is the result of many small choices made over time.  Just remember: Making exercise part of your lifestyle means finding and building routines that not only get your fitness journey started, but also keep it going. Good habits should sneak up on you—and aggregating a series of small gains can trigger big improvements over time, particularly when they leave you feeling as rejuvenated as exercise can.

A Medcan personal trainer can help you start your fitness journey. To arrange an appointment, contact Stephen Salzmann at stephensalzmann@medcan.com or 416.350.5900, ext. 3644.

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