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3 research-backed tips for creating a consistent workout habit

And spoiler alert: it isn't just self-discipline.

Applying the wisdom of Atomic Habits to creating a consistent workout routine.

The beginning of a new year sparks motivation to finally prioritize that new habit you have been wanting to create, or to recommit to something you're ready to try again.

For many, that habit is centered around creating a new exercise routine. You *know* 2024 will be the year that you make movement a consistent part of your life.

But without the proper intention and plan to move forward, these new goals can quickly join the discarded pile of failed new year resolutions thrown out by so many.

So how, exactly, do you stick to your very well-intentioned ambition to get – and stay – moving?

Here are three of my favorite tips, borrowed from my new obsession and applied specifically to fitness.

Applying the principles of Atomic Habits to fitness

I know I am a little late to the game, but recently, I have become engrossed in reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. While this book can be applied to any habit you want to form, I want to look at the principles and tools Clear offers through the lens of forming an exercise or movement habit. Specifically, we'll look at the first law Clear discusses in how to create a good habit.

So what does it take to truly form a new exercise habit?

First, let's shine a big flashlight on the fact that Clear completely erodes the idea that it is merely self discipline that creates a consistent habit. He shatters the mindset that if you have fallen off of your routine of working out that it means you are lazy and not dedicated. Creating a new habit is less about being dedicated to doing so, and more about building the environment that allows you to succeed.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

– James Clear

Clear shows you the real science behind what forms a habit – good or bad. 

And while I think everyone should read the book in its entirety, today I want to dissect only the first law he discusses in how to create a good habit: make it obvious. And under the first law, there are three more detailed principles:

  1. Make your workout cues obvious and visible

First, Clear talks about cues. Every habit has cues that signify to your brain, consciously or unconsciously, that you should behave in a certain way. 

The cue is what triggers an action. You may not necessarily be thinking about wanting to eat a chocolate chip cookie, but if there is a plate of cookies on the counter when you walk into the kitchen, you’re going to grab one and eat one. Or your phone buzzes with a notification you received a new text message, so you pick up your phone and open your messages app to see who it was. Cues dictate almost everything we do. When something is visible and in front of our face, we are more likely to take action.

When it comes to working out, what are your cues and how can you make them obvious and visible?

Maybe, instead of keeping your yoga mat rolled up and put away in your closet, you keep it standing directly next to your bedroom door, or if you have the space, you keep it laid out on the floor in a corner of the room you constantly walk by.

Maybe, each night you lay your workout clothes on your dresser, so they are the first thing you see in the morning. Or maybe you pack your gym bag each night and keep it on the front passenger seat of your car, so your bag is in your immediate view when you drive home.

You get the idea. Taking something that triggers our action to work out and making it unavoidable.

Take a moment to think about the things that would cue you to work out and decide how you can make them obvious and right in front of your face.

And then actually do it. 

Move your yoga mat. Pull out your clothes. Put your running shoes by your bedroom door. Put your hand weights on the end table where you can see them. The more visible, the better.

2. Name the specific time and location of your workout

In addition to talking about cues, Clear talks about another important aspect of the first law when creating a new habit – explicitly naming the time and location where you will perform the habit.

He provides evidence in the book that vague habits are much less likely to be carried through. The the difference between, “I will work out this week” and “I will work out on Monday at 12:30 p.m. on my lunch hour” is immense when it comes to actually sticking to and forming a new habit.

So don’t merely say to yourself, “I am going to start working out in 2024.”

Choose the time and place. Take out your calendar and physically block off the times you will work out. Put it in your calendar and treat it like any other appointment. Book the class at your local studio. Or set an alarm in your phone for every Tuesday/Thursday at 1:00 to close your laptop and turn on a workout class at home.

The act of deciding the exact time and location will help you stick to your habit of working out.

3. Stack your workout directly next to an already-established habit

And lastly as part of the first law on creating a new habit, Clear talks about habit stacking, the act of performing your new habit directly after a habit that is already a regular part of your day.

Every morning after I brush my teeth, I will do 20 pushups.

After my daily morning meeting, I will take a 30 minute yoga class.

After I take my dog for her afternoon walk, I will stretch for 15 minutes.

Habit stacking helps you find consistency and maintain your new habit.

Take a moment and see if there is something you already do every day (or every other day) where you can add on your new habit.

The reality with creating a new workout routine is that it’s not sexy. It’s a very intentional and thought-out plan. It’s a bunch of little decisions and shifts that you make in your day that add up to the big shift in how you feel.

Where do I go from here?

So my advice to you is, first, if you want to dive deeper into the science of forming a new habit and really learn all the motivating details, read the book (or listen to the audio book) Atomic Habits by James Clear. Then we can nerd out together on all the nuances and intricacies of creating habits.

And second, try these three simple-enough tasks this year as you are forming an exercise habit.

  1. Give yourself obvious and visible cues that remind you to work out, that help integrate moving your body into your normal daily life.

  2. Be extremely specific when it comes to laying out your workout plan. Don’t be vague – write out the exact time and place when you will move your body.

  3. Try habit stacking. Try stacking your workout directly after a habit that you already have seamlessly a part of your normal daily routine.

Then let me know how it goes and if you find that sticking to your workouts this year feels a little bit more possible.

Because ultimately, your movement goal should just be about continuing to move. While you may have a short-term goal to lose weight, or to deadlift X amount of weight, or to do X amount of pushups, your deeper, long-term goal is to just keep your body healthy and moving and doing all of the things you love for as long as you possibly can. 

Our lives require movement, so go create that consistent movement routine for yourself and keep it going.


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