Making exercise a habit

05 January 2023

We've all been there, especially with 'health kick' new year's resolutions. We set out with great intentions, determined that this year it's going to be different, we're not going to give up - really, genuinely, absolutely. Yet, within weeks, we've fallen back into our old, unhealthy ways.

The key to making a new year's resolution 'stick', especially one that's about changing a lifestyle behaviour or getting healthy or doing more exercise, is for it to become a habit rather than a chore.

Lacing up your running shoes or wearily clambering on to the bike may still not be something you actively look forward to. But you're much less likely to give up on it if it's become a repeated and easily repeatable part of your 'new' life.

We all know we should be exercising more, that exercise is good not only for physical but mental health. Most of us are also probably aware of the NHS' activity guidelines that we should be doing 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week, ideally spread over at least four to five days.

So, how do you make that change? How can you use the springboard of a new year to make doing more exercise a sustainable new lifestyle? One thing that we have done is to link up with five-time Olympian Jo Pavey to promote a healthier 2023.

We're all different and so are going to respond to different mental tricks, nudges and incentives to keep going. But here are five things you can try.

Five ways to make new year's exercise 'stick'

1. Find a (regular) time

It's the crack of dawn on 3 January, dark and cold, but you're on it; outside and ready to roll in your new reflective running gear. That's great, but is this new-year enthusiasm going to be sustainable?

What about those mornings when you regularly have to leave early for work? Or if you know you're someone who likes to hit 'snooze' and so too often ends up running late as it is? Are early mornings really likely to be the best choice?

The key is to be thinking about who you are - and being honest with yourself - before deciding on the change you want to make.

If you know you're not a morning person, think about when else might work better. Could lunchtime or early evenings be more 'stickable' options? Or maybe a regular timeslot at the weekend instead?

One good idea is to look at something you already do regularly - your commute to work, perhaps - and thinking if there are ways to make that more active. Perhaps cycling to work, or getting off a stop earlier and walking, or deliberately parking further away, for example.

Whatever the answer, the point is to find regular points in the week that are already part of your routine, just perhaps not for exercise, which you can potentially make into your exercise 'me time' with a bit of determination.

2. Start small

Just as it makes sense not to be over-ambitious about when you think you're going to exercise, so it is sensible not to be over-confident about how much exercise you'll be able to do, at least initially.

We all like to think we'll become the 3K of 'couch to 3K' overnight. The reality, however, is that if you push yourself too hard too fast, one of two things is going to happen.

First, there's a strong chance you're going to flag and start skipping your routine, which can all too easily lead to quitting. Or, second, you're going to end up injuring yourself, which will mean you have to rest up and recover, with the risk that, again, you simply stop altogether.

So, build up slowly and realistically. Even if you're initially nowhere close to 150 minutes a week or 10,000 steps a day or whatever your target is, don’t worry; if you stick with it, progress will come. Getting fit is not a race; it's about persevering with incremental change that, in time, can develop into something transformational.

3. Try not to stop and start, but don't beat yourself up if you do

In many respects, wet, cold, dark and cheerless January is probably the worst point of the calendar to be going on a health and/or exercise kick.

The temptation to pull the covers back over your nose, snuggle down with another cup of tea and crumpets, scroll on social media - any excuse in fact just not to do 'it' today - can be strong.

It can be easy to say 'one day off is not going to hurt', especially if you’ve been 'good' so far every other day that week. But try not to.

The key with turning something into a habit is that you do it consistently. Once you have skipped a day it's going to be that much harder - physically and mentally - to restart. This, again, creates the risk that one day off becomes a week, then a month, and you simply end up not restarting at all.

Having said that, we are all human, and so if you do skip a day, don't beat yourself up about it. And definitely don't say, 'well that's that then, I've failed, I give up'. Nevertheless, it is important you get back into the routine as quickly as you can.

4. Make it social

One of the best ways to stick with anything, whether it's exercise or just starting a hobby, is to do it with other people. If your new activity is also a social exercise, that's automatically going to make it more fun. There's also going to be the incentive that if you don’t turn up, you're potentially letting others down.

This could be signing up to a running, walking, cycling or swimming club, even joining a gym. It could be enrolling in fitness, exercise, yoga or some other form of classes. Making exercise into a social habit can have the added benefit that you might make some new friends or widen your social circle at the same time. Just so long as the 'social' bit doesn't take over.

Don't forget, too, that social these days need not just mean face to face. Especially since the pandemic, we've seen an explosion in apps and digital platforms that offer virtual group or 'social' fitness activities.

For example, the subscription-based cycling platforms Zwift and Peloton both offer group rides and races. There are virtual running clubs you can join, and many virtual fitness groups available online too.

Equally as easy to access are online classes and workouts, such as Joe Wicks' The Body Coach, among many others. While these may not be 'social' in the sense of being able to hang around to chat afterwards, they nevertheless mean you become part of a wider fitness community, which can itself be a great motivator.

A further incentive can be putting money behind your lifestyle change, whether that's paying for classes, a gym or cycling subscription, or buying kit. However, before making any financial commitment it is worth checking if your insurer or health provider offers any discounts or subsidies.

Do also recognise that shelling out on your new 'habit' does not necessarily mean you will stick with it. In fact, it is estimated that Britons waste a staggering £4bn a year on unused gym fees. Nevertheless, making a financial and/or social investment in 'new you' can be a great incentive not to give up.

5. Don't get too hung up on results

This final point comes back to the idea that getting fit is not a race. One of the motivators of any lifestyle change like this is when you start to see the first green shoots of tangible change.

It's not quite as painful, or you're not as out of breath, or you can go for longer, or the bathroom scales have finally started to shift in the right direction. If you can see evidence of 'success', you're much more likely to stick with it.

Nevertheless, remember what you're trying to achieve is a 'lifestyle' change, so a change, ideally, for life.

Therefore, it's important not to get too hung up on fast results. Setting your expectations too high raises the chances of disappointment which, in turn, can increase the likelihood of just quitting wholesale. That said, some people like a target - a family event like the Castle Race Series, which we're supporting in 2023, may be something to aim for.

The results you're looking for will come if you stick at it, but they may take time. In fact, in some ways, it's better if they do take time because that means it's more likely the change you're making will by then have become a regular, stickable part of your daily routine.

Here's to the start of sustained, sustainable, fitter new you in 2023.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.