When I was a graduate student, I struggled to commit to a program of regular exercise. I wanted to exercise five days a week, but found that I would exercise four days one week, and three the next, and two days the following week. This was frustrating, so I made a New Year’s resolution and started to put stars on the calendar for every day I exercised. The result? For the last 20 years I’ve exercised five days a week – every week. My New Year’s resolution was successful, and I became interested in why I was able to follow through when I’d failed in the past.
At the University of Minnesota CEHD School of Kinesiology, I’ve researched many exercise interventions and examined the factors that contribute to a person’s success (or failure) to maintain a program of regular exercise. Here are four general principles for thinking about exercise that can help you keep your commitment to exercise.
1. Focus on the daily benefits of regular exercise.
There is a wide array of health benefits of regular exercise. Reduced risk of stroke, cancer and cardiovascular disease are just some of the potential draws to starting an exercise program. But what I’ve found in my research suggests that focusing on those big, long-term goals isn’t an effective way to be motivated to exercise that day. We sometimes rationalize putting off exercise with questions like “Do I need to prevent cardiovascular disease today? Can I do it tomorrow?” The answer is usually, “Yes.” These general, long-term health benefits are important to people in the abstract, but often easy to ignore in the moment.
My research suggests that it’s better to focus on how exercise makes you feel today. Does your mood improve when you exercise? Do you have more energy? Do you sleep better? We find that focusing on these more immediate, short-term benefits translates into more motivation to exercise throughout the week.
Falling in the middle ground are the cognitive benefits of regular exercise. There’s a large body of data suggesting that exercise helps prevent the natural cognitive decline that gradually occurs with age. However, we find that people can also appreciate the fact that exercise makes them more attentive and alert on a daily basis. Again, this tends to resonate with people more than the longer-term health effects.
2. Make enjoyable exercise a habit.
Your goal is to make physical activity a habit. While research shows that habits can be formed in as little as two weeks, the average length of time that it takes to form a habit is 60 days. Ensuring that regular exercise is enjoyable, scheduled and monitored is key to establishing routines that become habits.
How much someone enjoys physical activity is going to have a big impact on whether they keep doing that physical activity. That’s why figuring out what works for you is important. Picking a sport, activity or exercise routine that’s fun will go a long way towards establishing a successful exercise habit. Exercise doesn’t have to be complicated; brisk walking is just fine. Strength training can be as simple as doing push-ups against the wall.
However, even if you don’t like a particular exercise activity while you’re doing it, you can still focus on the feeling of accomplishment you get when you’re done, or how much you enjoy the feeling exercise gives you throughout the day.
3. Plan and monitor your progress.
We know that finding time to exercise can be difficult. That’s why it’s important to plan out regular exercise time in your week like it’s an appointment. Simply saying, “I’m going to do this activity on this day at this time” can be helpful, like prioritizing meetings at work.
Monitoring progress is also an important component of success. If you said you would exercise four days a week, it can be helpful to document your efforts on paper or through an app to ensure that you stick to your goals.
4. Don’t focus on weight loss.
The biggest misconception about starting a regular exercise program is that it will lead to weight loss. This belief is one of the factors that can have a negative effect on a person’s ability to maintain their program. When you exercise to lose weight and that weight loss doesn’t happen, it’s easy for you to lose motivation and stop exercising. Generally, if you don’t make dietary changes along with exercise, you’re not going to see weight loss immediately. While building muscle will lead to a higher metabolism in the long term, the weight loss effects won’t be immediately evident – and often won’t occur at all without a change in diet.
With this in mind, start your exercise program knowing that it’s a healthy thing for you to do. Instead of focusing on weight loss, focus on your higher energy level, improved mood and better sleep. These immediate and noticeable benefits will help you maintain your motivation and enthusiasm.
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