Truth is, people who stay faithful to their exercise plans don’t actually have willpower. They don’t need it.
What they have is a habit. A routine. Exercise for them is like brushing their teeth. They don’t spend a single brain cell making decisions about it. They just get up and do it.
And they feel great about it.
It’s been said that if you could put the benefits of exercise in a pill, it would be the single most prescribed medication in the world. No small part of those benefits is the effect of exercise on weight loss. Studies show that when people have lost weight and acquired an exercise habit, they’re more likely to stay trim than are people who try to keep the pounds off through dietary changes alone.
Turning an exercise routine — and all its benefits — into a permanent resident in your life is a matter of housecleaning your priorities, setting up a schedule and toning up your motivation (until you’re hooked, that is). Here’s the plan:
Step one: Make exercise a priority
Take a look at the agenda that’s behind tomorrow’s agenda. That is, take a look at the priorities that are driving your calendar. Put exercise on that priority list. High on that list. Next to working and bill paying and watching Dan Rather. “If exercise is my third priority and it’s your fifteenth, you’re not going to find the time to exercise.
Where people run into trouble is in making something like “getting fit” a priority but then not making the tasks required to get there a priority, too. If you want to get to the top of the stairs, you must negotiate the steps-If you continue to put a lower priority on the task or activities required to reach your goal (exercising in the evenings, for instance) than on the goal itself (improving health, for example), then you’re not going to make it.
Step two: Find the time
Waiting for exercise to fit into your life “when I have the time” is like waiting to win the lottery when you haven’t bought a ticket. You have to find the time. Try this: For about a week, write down where you’ve spent your time, as if minutes are checks that you’re entering in your checkbook. This gives you a picture of how you’re spending your time.
Chances are, there are points that can be nipped and tucked to free a bit of time every day. Maybe you’re on the telephone with a neighbor when you could both be walking around the neighborhood together. Maybe your CNN addiction could be sated from the seat of a stationary bike.
If reshuffling this time inventory still hasn’t yielded a full 30 minutes for exercise, wipe your schedule clean, reach for your priority list and highlight those activities of highest importance (including exercise) on your daily calendar. Then let the rest of your life flow around those immovable time commitments.
Step three: Assign a time
To make exercise a habit, it needs to be on the agenda in a specific time slot, not on that “to do” list that you turn to “when you have a minute.” Where on that list? Any time that you’ll do it. Some people prefer a walk and a bath as a nightcap. Others find that noontime workouts free them from finding a sitter for the kids.
As far as making exercise a habit, however, science is on the side of the early birds. People who work out in the mornings are much more likely to stick to their programs than people who leave it until later — when spur-of-the-moment meetings or family responsibilities can knock the best intentions off balance.
Don’t be so quick to roll your eyes and groan that you’re not a morning person. Neither are most of the people who exercise at or before the crack of dawn. They’re just people who have gotten up and gone exercising; they’re not necessarily out there humming “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Some morning walkers have found that it’s not that much more difficult to get up 30 minutes before the alarm usually goes off. Says one convert who never thought she’d exercise in the morning: Getting up is difficult whether I do it at 6 a.m. or at 7 a.m. So I just get up early and do it.
Your morning schedule might not even need much revising to include exercise. Let their [offices] know that Monday through Friday, they’re not going to be seeing people until 8:30 a.m. instead of 8. You get up at the same time, but you have your workout done by the time you get to work.
No matter what time of the day you don your walking shoes, keep it consistent. One way to make something a habit is to have the same environment, the same situation every time you exercise,
As you consider getting up and getting dressed to be part of the workday. That process of donning the workout gear at a designated time is far more important than how long or how hard you work out, he says. Once the consistency is ingrained in your routine, you can pay more attention to the quality of your workout.
Step four: Do it
Now that you know where you’re going to put the exercise in your day, figure out what kind of workout you’re going to do in that slot. Let hedonism be your guide. Why do something that’s no fun? (Isn’t that why you quit last time?) Use your creativity to boost the fitness potential of activities like walking the dog that you might not even consider “exercise.”
Then, be reasonable about how much exercise you’re really going to be able to do five days a week, every week, all year long.
Start by promising yourself 30 minutes of exercise per session (20, if you’re new to exercise). Wimpy? Nope. Realistic is more like it. When you have a breakfast meeting every day and special dinners and meetings all week, you’ll find a 30-minute workout manageable and a 90-minute one nearly impossible.
The point isn’t to do “lite” exercise. It’s to shift your thinking from “this is what I’m going to have to do to get in shape” to “this is a habit I have.” If you’ve been sedentary for a while, even 20 minutes of exercise every day is going to have you feeling great in no time.
In the first few weeks, however, don’t under-schedule yourself. A 30-minute workout means 30 minutes of moving around. Not 5 minutes for finding your shoes, 1 for tying them, and 15 for looking for your shades, applying sunscreen and pulling yourself together afterward. So be realistic; schedule an hour if that’s what you really need to accomplish a 30-minute workout. Eventually, you’ll get more efficient at preparation and re-entry, and you’ll have more time to exercise.
The key is setting yourself up to be successful at your new program. Small successes are what give you the belief that you can keep going and that you can manage larger challenges, she says.
Step five: How long till it’s a habit?
There’s no magic number for how long it takes habits to take hold. But there are strong hints that it can happen as quickly as six to eight weeks. After the first few months, my job becomes very easy — I don’t have to tell people to exercise any more-Once they feel the benefits of it, they’ll establish it as a lifestyle.
You’ll soon see that a routine is anything but routine. It’s simply a matter of following a format that makes you feel good; about making promises to yourself and keeping them.
Making a change isn’t really about deprivation-Sure, there are impulses you’re not going to follow. But you’re making a decision on your own behalf that will improve your life.
It’s a sign that you’re keeping commitments to yourself that you know are smart. That you’re on your way to having exercise become automatic. That you’re getting stronger. Making things happen. It takes a little effort every now and then. But why wouldn’t you want to work to your full potential?
Superglue: Tricks that make a program stick
Woman on Rollerblades You can do almost anything for a week (except hold your breath). It’s the second week of an exercise program — and maybe on into the sixth — that you find yourself looking for some extra strategies that will bond you and your new routine like superglue. Here are some tricks to help:
Have your stuff handy. Nothing can derail your intentions faster than sneakers that are still soggy from the weekend hike or Walkman batteries that make Frank Sinatra sound like Lurch from the Addams family. Flatten those paper-tiger obstacles by keeping your gear ready to roll and, above all, handy. If you have to trip over your walking shoes on your way out the door, you’re one step closer to leaving with them on.
Hitch exercise to an essential. Attaching exercise to something you absolutely have to do every day (until exercise itself becomes that thing) will boost your chances of doing it. Some exercisers leave the house without showering so they have to go to the gym on their way to work. Others leave an essential piece of equipment like eyeliner or concealer in their gym lockers so they either go there or go without.
Be engaging. Sign up your friends, your spouse and anyone else you trust to keep you pointed in the right direction. Most people need something or someone to obligate them to exercise for the first month or two of a new program, if you’ve chosen to begin your workday at 8:30 instead of 8, have a friend phone or email you and ask if you’ve done your workout. Offer to do the same for them.
Find a role model. Oprah is not a role model. Sure, she’s lost weight and she exercises. But can she get the kids from baton lessons to baseball practice, put the finishing touches on tomorrow’s report, cook dinner and still walk an hour a day during the work week? Find someone like yourself, with your kind of obligations and obstacles, who works out like clockwork. She’s the one who proves the point that it can be done.
Acknowledge the cost of doing business. Back when you made that pros-and-cons-of-exercise list, there undoubtedly was a “con” or two. Don’t ignore what’s there. The person who doesn’t give a nod to the fact that exercise may cause some muscle stiffness might pack it in when exercise has that effect.
Drink from the company-only china. Or do whatever else feels like a reward. After you exercise for a while, the glow that you feel after a walk in the park is reward in spades. But in the first few months of a program, you might need to give yourself a blue ribbon now and then. It doesn’t have to be extravagant Just remember to reward the behavior, not the outcome. That is, reward yourself for walking five times this week, not for losing a pound.
Don’t sweat the skips
Inevitably, real-world obstacles will occasionally come between you and the gym (or your park path). Don’t sweat it.