Craving Exercise: Five Simple Steps to Making Exercise a Habit

I just finished reading Charles Duhigg’s best seller:

 The Power of Habit: Why we do What We do in Life and Business.

In it, Duhigg details how habits are created and how significantly and stealthily they drive our daily lives.    He starts out telling a story about an obese, lifetime smoker we’ll call Jennifer.  She was deep in debt, unemployed and in fast failing health, but eventually became a multi-marathon running homeowner quickly climbing the corporate ladder.

Just how does one go from near destitution and death to a societal leader in business and health?

To appreciate her story, we first need to a understand a bit more about the things we call habits.

Habits, according to Duhigg are responsible for nearly all of what we do throughout the day.   Human brains strongly prefer auto-pilot routines and are naturally wired to seek out and perform regular, automated patterns.  Very little actual decision making is done on a daily basis.  Your brain attempts to complete your day mostly as collection of recognizable queues and associated behaviors.  Call it efficiency if you like.

Habits, per Duhigg,  follow the basic pattern of:

  • A Trigger followed by
  • A  Routine followed by
  • Some type of a Reward.
We all have habits, good and bad that follow this pattern.   Take overeating.  People who overeat sometimes do so not because they’re hungry, but rather because they’re bored.  The boredom triggers the habit of eating.  The reward is a tasty disposal of a few minutes of otherwise uninteresting time.  Obviously, this is an undesirable habit a lot of people would like to change.
If you’re looking to change bad habits or introduce new ones (like exercise more!),  the process includes:
  1. Recognizing triggers / queues,
  2. Building desirable behaviors behind  them, and
  3. Rewarding yourself for that behavior.

As your brain associates the trigger to the expectation of the specific reward, it gradually becomes neurologically wired to anticipate those results.  

This develops into an actual craving that drives the trigger-behavior-reward loop and … voila!  A  new habit is formed!


As far as triggers are concerned, the more concrete and consistent, the better!  

I have the habit of packing a couple of workout bags every Sunday night.   I fold laundry in front of the Sunday night football game (my trigger) and stuff workout gear into my gym and hockey bags (my routine).    The reward is a satisfied feeling I get knowing that I’m mentally and physically prepared for Monday’s trip to the gym and Tuesday’s hockey game.   I really like that I’m ahead of my exercise schedule, and doing laundry during Sunday night football is a weekly event for me.  I pack my bags on Sunday (consistent) during the football game (concrete).

Now, I won’t pretend that very many people fold laundry during Sunday night football,  but there are lots of things that are personal, tangible and regular events in your life that could also be effective triggers in building habits.  Here are a few:

  1. Getting Home from Work
  2. Feeding the Dog
  3. Picking up the mail
  4. Doing dishes
  5. Grocery shopping, and
  6. Fueling your car.
What you do following each of these triggers is your routine.  There’s nothing wrong with eating a snack after picking up the mail, but if  you’re looking to cut some calories from your diet, you have an opportunity to change that habit.  Perhaps you could stretch or walk or actually read that mail instead of following the snacking routine.
In order to make that change interesting enough, however, you’ll need to properly incentivize yourself with an associated reward for the modified behavior.
Similar to Triggers, behavior Rewards need to be simple, very tangible and somewhat desirable to you personally, though not necessarily significant.  Things like:
  1. A tall cold glass of beer
  2. A slice of pie
  3. A new shirt
  4. A cool new gadgets and
  5. Recognition of accomplishment …

… can all be effective rewards for your successful routines.

Duhigg calls earning these rewards small wins.  

Consistent with  Keri Gens Small Change Diet philosophy presented last week,  small wins matter and they matter enormously in driving the loop for habit development.     

Small wins re-enforce the routine with a strong sense of accomplishment and progress.

Small wins are critical in new habit formation.   Humans thrive on accomplishment, but if the goal is huge (like lose 80#), it’s important to see measurable, regular progress towards that goal.   100% participation in simply showing up for exercise is a perfectly fine small win for a lot of people.

But it gets even better!

Certain habits, called keystone habits make the change process even more dramatic.  

Keystone habits can motivate creation of associated  habits that can literally change a person’s life forever!    Keystone habits function not only as a effective stand alone habits, but they also trigger additional queues and rewards for beneficially associated behavior.

In  (obese, smoking and broke) Jennifer’s case from above,  she decided to simply quit smoking once she hit rock bottom.  She recognized that the trigger she had had for smoking .. largely inactivity and idleness.. and used that trigger to do something else.   For her, that something else was running.   Eventually, the rewards of exercise (feeling good and feeling accomplished) triggered more exercise.    Smoking cessation was a keystone habit for Jennifer that triggered the habit of regularly running.  These two habits triggered other healthy habits.  She ate better, slept better, had more confidence in herself and quite literally changed her life forever with one new keystone habit!

And guess what?

Exercise is another of these keystone habits.  

This is why I’ve always said that: No matter what the question is, exercise is one of the best answers!

Making exercise a habit can and will improve your diet.   Regularly exercising will help you sleep better and will reduce stress in your life.   With regular exercise you will look better, feel better and feel better about how you look.  Regular exercise will help boost your confidence and reduce your risk of disease and  early death.

An exercise habit triggers countless additional habits that will make you more effective in business and in life.

So then, if you’re not exercising regularly most days of the week (and that’s 4 or more days per week folks),  you will win big and small with more exercise!

Here then are my Five Simple Steps for making exercise a habit.

Step 1:  Establish the habit of SCHEDULING regular exercise.

This has nothing to do with the actual exercise itself, but rather just Getting It SCHEDULED.  Plan for 4  days per week.  Something like ” … top of the morning Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays…”  is perfect ,but any way you can place immutable exercise appointments onto your schedule works just fine!

  1. Find your Trigger:  Schedule this week of  workouts after dinner on Sunday or whatever weekly trigger works best for you.
  2. Establish your Routine: Put the workouts in your  your calendar in black, indelible ink.  Put it on your refrigerator and share it with your family or support network.  Whatever.  Just have a routine.
  3. Identify your Reward, and take the small win.   Yes, you get a Win for Scheduling! Perhaps the personal satisfaction of recognizing that you won’t miss any exercise this week is sufficient for you.  But if that doesn’t <ahem> trip your trigger,   come up with a different small win reward.  Maybe 30 Minutes of video gaming is your thing.  Or a nap on Saturday?  A BBQ chicken sandwich?   It doesn’t matter exactly what it is, just that you somehow celebrate your scheduling win.  You decide how.

Step 2. Journal your workouts.

Just as dieters will see overall food consumption go down once they start writing it all down, you too will see small wins daily once you start recording your actual exercise effort and results.  Use your smartphone’s notepad, a small paper notebook or the most sophisticated exercise tracking tool on the market, whichever you prefer.     What matters most  is that YOU SIMPLY WRITE IT DOWN every day!

If you’re new to exercise altogether, record very broad exercise effort and volume.  Something like:

  • Monday, October 15th, 2012.
  • 30 minutes moderate intensity elliptical.
  • 30 minutes of moderate intensity resistance training.
  • 10 minutes of stretching.
As you become more regular and more sophisticated as an exerciser, you’ll want to graduate to journaling more specific details like:
  • 15 minute moderate intensity treadmill frosted with 3 30 second sprint intervals resting 2 minutes between each.
  • Quadriceps: 3 sets of 12-15 incline leg presses with the final set of 13 to exhaustion at 360#.
  • Hamstrings: 3 sets of 10-12 seated leg curls with the final set of 9 to exhaustion at 100#.
  • Abdominals: Incline situps with 5K med ball, 25 reps supersetted with 15 reps of hanging leg raisers.
  • ….

Step 3.  Identify and establish very personal, concrete and highly appreciated Small Win Rewards.

  • This is where you know you best
  • Often times, comfort foods provide this reward: Potato chips, Pizza, Beer
  • For others, it’s new exercise attire
    • For some,  it’s time spent doing other things, like a night out or another game of golf
  • Find the little things that motivate you to work hard and be self disciplined!

Step 4 Celebrate All Wins Big and Small: 

With these (Step 3) rewards treat yourself to something nice when you  hit little milestones:

    • Enjoy that well deserved beer after a hard or long bike ride.
    • Eat a bag of chips with lunch on Saturday if you’ve had a good week in gym.
    • Have a cookie whenever you record a personal best on an exercise (why you Journal)
    • Have a Huge, Loaded Cheese Burger when you complete an endurance event (ie, 10K run)
    • Reward yourself with a new exercise t shirt when you make 12 workouts each month.  Not only does the garment represent your accomplishment, but it also provides a trigger to use it again in another workout!

Buy yourself something audacious when you hit big milestones

  • Lose that 25#!?   Go out and buy the swim suit, little black dress or power suit you’ve been coveting.
  • Log 10,000 miles in the saddle this summer?  Go out and bring home that pretty black and red $10,000 Italian road bike.
  • Finish your 1st marathon?  Book that cruise you’ve been deferring.

Step 5: Enshrine your progress

  • Start a notebook or scrap book with your achievements.
  • Build a blog where you record milestones.
  • Take pictures month to month and year to year.
  • Establish a nice corner of your home for awards, finishing results and pictures of your exercise achievements.
Last, don’t cheat yourself.  Self discipline is the hardest part.   Don’t give yourself the cheese burger if you don’t really earn it.
Reserve the big rewards for big achievements and instead focus on the small wins in the mean time.

Need help with Healthy Habits?

Contact me directly and mention Habit Power for a free 15 minute Healthy Living phone consultation! 

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