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Seven strategies for developing the exercise habit

Patrick Dale provides several suggestions that might help you establish an exercise routine that will eventually become a habit.

I can honestly say that I have been exercising all of my adult life (some 20 years) and for a fair amount of my childhood. During that time, my efforts have been consistent, regular, and productive. As a result, I have achieved a reasonable level of success in sports ranging from rugby to trampolining, to athletics to rock climbing.

The one thing that has been a constant companion throughout this long training career is I have always needed to find ways to motivate myself. It has never been easy to drag myself into the gym at 6 am or out to run at 10 pm, but somehow, I have done it every time.

Without realizing it, I made exercise a lifelong habit and now enjoy the fruits of those endeavours – above average muscle mass, lower than average body fat, sufficient strength for all everyday activities, and muscular endurance which allows me to perform physical tasks for prolonged periods, adequate CV fitness that allows me to run about as far as I will ever want to, not to mention lowered incidence of illness and disease compared to my peers, high energy levels and the luxury of knowing I will probably enjoy these benefits long into my twilight years.

People often say to me “oh but it is so easy for you!” but I can assure you it is not. Training never gets any easier – that is a fallacy! You merely get fitter and work harder. I feel the same discomfort as a beginner exerciser, get out of breath in the same way an unfit person would, and weights feel heavy to me as they would to a person with less strength. I have a greater work capacity that allows me to work at higher levels of output – however, it is still as hard as the first time I ran around the block as an eight-year-old training for my first sports day. And yes – that feeling of sore muscles beginners get after starting a new exercise routine (delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS) – I get that too … at least a couple of times a week!

Every day, there are things I would rather be doing than sweating in the gym or panting out on the road, like watching TV, reading, sleeping, meeting my friends, or just chilling out eating junk food…but the difference between me and a non-exerciser is that I “just do it” to quote Nike. Exercise has become a habit and a vital part of my day, just like eating, sleeping, and breathing.

The hardest part about exercise is getting off the couch, or getting out the front door, or away from whatever place you are drawn to by an invisible gravitational pull designed to stop you from being fit and healthy. Once you have broken away from that place – the rest is easy.

So – how do we establish a routine that will eventually become a habit? Well, I have several suggestions which may help.

Remember, it takes 3-6 months of concerted, the regular effort for something to become habitual, so do not go expecting any quick fixes but with some application of effort and, dare I say it, discipline, exercise adherence is a real possibility and developing the skills to be self-motivated are yours for the taking…we just need to get through that first few months…

Set goals

Why do you want to get fit? Is it to lose weight, look good on the beach, drop a clothing size, be healthier or get stronger? Whatever it is, write it down. Show it to people, tell people about your goal, and explain what you are trying to achieve. The point of this exercise is to give you focus. Every workout missed or every day off your healthy eating plan puts you a day further away from achieving what you want from your time spent exercising. Make sure your goals are realistic and achievable in a reasonable time frame. If necessary break your main goal into “micro” goals that you can tick off regularly, e.g.

Main goals

Micro goals

Lose 2 stone

Lose ½ pound a week

Run a marathon

Eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day


Exercise 5 times a week


Get 7-8 hours of sleep a night

Write a pro and con decision list

What have you got to gain versus what have you got to lose? If you ever feel your resolve waning, revisit this document and remind yourself what you have given up in return for all the benefits you are working towards, e.g.



Look better

Half an hour less sleep

Lose weight

Have to be organized

Feel fitter

Drink less alcohol

Have more energy

Eat plainer foods

After reviewing the above lists, it should be apparent that the minor cons are outweighed by the greater pros and should serve as a reminder that the decision made is a worthwhile one.

Plan and stick to it

Getting fit is a journey, and to complete a journey, you often need a map. By planning how to get from A to B, we can prepare for change and give ourselves a route to follow, allowing us to progress along our chosen path without worrying about losing our way or getting distracted. Remember the adage – “prior preparation prevents poor performance!” To help keep on the straight and narrow, consider the following points:

  • Plan your workout times – treat them as appointments and stick to them.
  • Have a backup plan if you are unable to exercise at the time you wanted to – if you cannot go to the gym, what can you do instead? If it is raining, where else can you work out? Cover your bases! Have alternatives ready to cover as many eventualities as you can envisage.
  • Plan your weekly food intake and shop accordingly. One of the truths of diet and nutrition
  • is that you will eat it if you have junk food in your cupboard. As a result, make sure that you have plenty of healthy food in your cupboards, and that includes snacks.
  • Make sure you carry adequate food and water with you, so you do not have to rely on grabbing a snack at work – prepare much of your day's food the night before
  • Tell other people about your plans, so they do not accidentally interfere with your efforts to adopt a new healthy lifestyle.

Recruit a network of supporters

Why suffer alone? Ask friends, neighbours, family, and friends to assist you in your goals. Seek out like-minded people to act as training partners, get support from those closest to you, and join one of the many web-based groups that can offer both support and information to help you on your way ( is a great place to start!). The main point is that you do not have to “go it alone”. For some people, this might mean hiring a personal trainer or joining a group exercise class or it could just mean you work out with a neighbour. Whatever support method you choose, your efforts will be easier with someone else in your corner.

Keep accurate training and diet logs

Write it down! Nothing motivates like success…but to judge success we need to see where we started. By keeping track of workout performance, dietary trends, and physical measurements, we can see when we improve. Sometimes we fail to see our improvements because they are, on a day-to-day basis, so small but over time, these small improvements will add up to noticeable changes in body composition, body weight, fitness levels, etc. Often, someone who has not seen you for a while will comment on your dramatic weight loss or improved muscle tone – they have not seen you in a while so the changes seem great whereas to you, seeing yourself in the mirror daily may not have spotted much in the way of changes at all.

Do not be afraid to fall off the wagon

Even with the very best planning, goal setting, and support network, sometimes things go wrong – life gets in the way. When this happens, the key is not to let it phase you for too long and to pick up where you left off as soon as possible. These disruptions in routine are not failures, nor are they enough to undo all of your previous good works. Still, unless you jump back on the wagon as soon as possible, they can be the start of the slippery slope back to our previous physical state and a lot of hard work wasted. Learn from whatever caused this disruption to your planned routine and take measures to try to minimize the chances of similar trouble happening again. It is kind of cheesy, but some say that to FAIL is the First Action in Learning and so long as we take something positive away from a failure, it was not a wasted opportunity.

Choose things you like

Using the above 6 points, we can make exercise adherence much more likely, but if we choose activities we do not enjoy or foods we do not like, it becomes increasingly doubtful we will succeed in reaching our fitness or diet goals. There are many options for us to choose from and it is vital we chose things we are going to enjoy as much as possible. Why make things harder than they need to be? The old saying “it does not have to be hell to be healthy” is a good one to adopt as a diet and exercise mantra. So…do not like running? Try cycling. Not so keen on the gym? Join an exercise class. Do not like fruit? Make fresh fruit smoothies or juices. There are many ways to skin the proverbial cat, so spread your net wide and select activities and foods that slot as seamlessly into your lifestyle as possible.


So, in conclusion: set goals, note down decision change pros and cons, plan and stick to them, recruit a support network, keep food and training diaries, snd do not worry if you make mistakes (try, try and try again!), and choose foods and activities you enjoy. Following these simple guidelines will not turn you into an exercise addict overnight. It will still help you become a habitual, self-motivated exerciser and lead you towards a long and productive health & fitness lifestyle.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • DALE, P. (2007) Seven strategies for developing the exercise habit. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 43/ June), p. 10-11

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • DALE, P. (2007) Seven strategies for developing the exercise habit [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Patrick Dale has 15 years of fitness industry experience. He has a wide and varied sporting history, having participated at a high level in athletics, rugby, rock climbing, trampolining, triathlon, weightlifting, and bodybuilding.