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How to make exercise a habit

Whether it’s a New Year’s resolution, or a pledge to get in shape before a big event, we can have the best intentions of exercising more frequently, but often don’t follow through with these intentions. So what can we do to make exercise part of our daily routine? In this article, we’ll explore some tips around how to make exercise a habit - from setting goals to making it a social activity. By following these tips, you may find it easier to bridge the divide between intention and doing, forming long-lasting exercise habits going forward.

How to make exercise a daily habit

According to the NHS, the average adult needs to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. But how do you fit this in when you have work or family commitments? It can sometimes feel like there simply isn’t enough hours in the day for running, swimming or workouts, however there are some steps you can take to help make exercise part of your daily routine:

1. Find a time of day to exercise and stick to it

Before you get started, plan out the time of day when you know you are most likely to be able to commit to exercising. Although the morning is often considered to be the best time of day for exercise, there are no hard and fast rules regarding when you should participate in physical activity, so if you find it easier to exercise after work, or in the afternoon, you will still reap plenty of benefits. Look for a slot where you are least likely to be distracted and can fully commit to the workout. If it helps to write it down as a pledge, you could make a note in your diary or calendar stating ‘this week, I will exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE]’.

2. Start gradually 

By starting off slowly and doing shorter workouts, you are allowing your body to get used to the change in physical activity. Going out hard and fast on day one may lead to burnout, which could lead to you being more inclined to quit. Start off completing 20 minute sessions with gentle jogging or low impact workouts and gradually build on that week on week. Once your body is more used to regular exercise, you can ramp up the pace or intensity.

3. Set realistic goals

If exercising daily is something quite new, it can be tricky to come up with a routine or plan that strikes the right balance for you. This is where using the SMART method might help.

  • S - Specific: This is where you define exactly what your goal is. So rather than saying ‘I plan to exercise more’, you could say ‘I plan to exercise four times a week’.
  • M - Measurable: Ensure you undertake exercises which are simple to track and measure, e.g. the distance you jog each day or how long each workout lasts. 
  • A - Attainable: This is one of the most important aspects of setting up an exercise routine. While we all might want to run a marathon five times a week, by targeting unrealistic goals we’re setting ourselves up to fail, meaning we’re more likely to feel demotivated and unlikely to continue. There is nothing wrong with setting small goals in the short term, then ramping it up week on week.
  • R - Relevant: This is about understanding why you want to make exercise a habit. Do you want to lose weight? Do you have an underlying condition? The more you understand and define why you’re doing it, the more likely you are to stay motivated and committed.
  • Timely: Mapping out a timeline with an end date to achieving a certain goal, e.g. ‘by this date I want to have lost 5kg, or ‘in six weeks I want to be able to run 5km without stopping’ will give you something clear and defined to work towards, and help you choose the right exercise to make that target more achievable.

4. Make exercising a social activity

You may have heard the old saying ‘ there's strength in numbers’ - this is certainly applicable when it comes to exercise. Exercising with a friend or as part of a group can increase your chances of sticking to a routine, while also making it more enjoyable. It’s also a great way to stay motivated and motivate others around you with similar goals. You can read more about the different types of group exercise you can take part in our article Fun Group Exercise Workouts.

5. Make it fun

Do you hate the idea of going to the gym? Shrink at the notion of running? Finding the right exercise for you puts you in a much better position to make it a habit and stick to it. You might find swimming more enjoyable, or if music is your thing, try water aerobics or zumba. You can even stick on the radio and dance along to your favourite tunes. If you’re competitive, you could consider squash or 5-a-side. And remember - you don’t have to stick to just one form of exercise. Why not break up the monotony with a different type of exercise each week? For example, walking a mile each day one week, then switching to yoga the next.

6. Don’t give up

Unfortunately, on occasions, life will get in the way of your exercise routine. Work, illness, weather or a family emergency sometimes interrupt your exercise plans. The important thing to remember is a setback or break in the routine isn’t the end of the world, so don’t lose heart. If you miss a session, try and make up the minutes through the week, or do an extra 30 minutes where you can. 

7. Reward yourself

While we wouldn’t recommend rewarding yourself with junk food or sweet treats after every workout, it is important to recognise your achievement and allow yourself some indulgences after you’ve reached a fitness or weight loss goal. You could treat yourself to a massage, buy some new workout gear or just give yourself a pamper day. That shouldn’t be the end of your fitness journey though. When you’ve achieved one goal, why not challenge yourself to achieve even more with your next goal?

How long does it take to make exercise a habit?

There is no one-size-fits-all number of days that leads to a behaviour becoming a habit. The length of time it takes to make exercise part of a routine varies person to person, depending on a range of factors such as current fitness levels, age, personal circumstances, etc. As a rule, we wouldn’t recommend a countdown of days to habit formation. It’s more important for the individual to find a routine that works for them and fits within their daily lives.

How to make a habit of exercising in the morning

Morning is considered one of the best times of the day to exercise. It boosts your energy throughout the day and aids focus and cognition. In order to get into a habit of exercising in the morning, here are some top tips:

  • Have exercise gear such as running shoes or workout clothes out and ready the night before 
  • If you’re doing low intensity exercise where the main goal is losing weight, consider working out before you’ve eaten breakfast. For more high-intensity exercise,we would suggest having some breakfast before working out to boost energy levels.
  • Agree to meet a friend each morning to work out together
  • If you do the school run every day, or drive to work, use this opportunity to walk or jog rather than take the car
  • If you’re not an early riser, gradually adjust your workout time. Rather than leap out of bed at the break of dawn, why not start later in the morning and slowly move your workout time earlier and earlier each day.

Further inspiration

We hope this article has inspired you to make exercise a regular habit. Here at LiveWell Dorset we’ve supported thousands of people in Dorset to get active through regular exercise. If you’d like to find local walking groups or fitness classes near you, why not try our LiveWell Finder tool? We also have a wide range of useful articles such as How to exercise when you have no time and the inspirational My couch to 5k.  If you’d like to find out more about what we do and how we can help you stay active, why not register or talk to us today? Our team of advisors and coaches are here to help you achieve your goals. 


"In January 2019, I was five stone heavier. Now, with the weight loss, parkrun and netball, my anxiety has improved tenfold."

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How does this work?

The tailored approach LiveWell Dorset uses to come up with solutions to the things that are stopping us achieving our goals, is based upon work done by University College London developing the COM-B model of behaviour change. In this model, all behaviour is influenced by understanding a person’s capability to change, their opportunity to change and their motivation to change. By understanding which of these is the biggest barrier to change, we can tailor support accordingly. This model of behaviour change is at the centre of the support we offer, online and in person.

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