10 Tricks for Building An Exercise-First-Thing Habit

Apparently, the number one thing you can do to increase the chance of good health in your senior years is to exercise now. Even the shortest walk is better than not moving at all, so my new goal is to move daily without being too strict about what counts as moving. Gardening and walking the dog both count, as does anything I do while at the gym.

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Of course, setting the goal to do something every single day is scary. I’ve failed so many times before. I hoped I’d develop a daily drawing habit by taking a drawing class, but it didn’t happen. Some part of my brain hates the idea that I need to do something every single day, even if it’s as simple as brushing my teeth.

But I was serious about getting in better shape and moving every day, so I decided I needed to develop a new habit. Fortunately, I found Gretchen Rubin’s new book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. I read it eagerly and reflected on my past experiences with exercising.

When I was younger, there was a period where I exercised six days a week. While belonging to a gym helped, because it provided the classes and equipment that formed my workouts, the real secret to my success was my commitment to exercising first thing every morning. I got up early and went to the gym before I went to work. It was a habit, something I just did without question, and it worked. I’ve argued against this strategy ever since because mornings became increasingly harder as I got older (mostly due to health problems).

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Thanks to the changes I’ve made in the last two years (including diet and light therapy), I am now much more of a morning person than I used to be. I wake up easily instead of dragging for hours after I get out of bed. For the first time in years, I was willing to consider the idea of going back to an exercise-first-thing schedule. Some of the tricks I am using to build this new habit are from Better Than Before, but some I’ve learned on my own.

1) It’s easier to do something every day than now and then. Gretchen Rubin has been saying this forever, but it’s one of the harder ideas for me to apply. I think of doing something every single day as a tedious chore or worse, setting myself up for failure. So I’ve made my rule a little less strict: get up early and exercise first thing, Monday thru Friday. I still have the goal to move daily, but on the weekend I don’t require myself to do it first thing. With a husband who loves to hike, a dog who loves to run, a big yard to maintain, and the gym waiting on bad weather days, it’s not hard to get moving on the weekend.

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2) No excuses. According to Rubin, once you allow yourself to miss a day for some reason, you make it easier to skip again until suddenly your new habit is no more. For me, no excuses means I don’t look for a reason to make an exception today. One day during my first week of the new schedule. I was awake for half the night. It would have been an easy morning to rationalize skipping the gym because even though I was awake well before the alarm went off, I felt awful. I got up and went to the gym anyway. I spent some time on an exercise bike and doing a handful of free-weight exercises. It was hardly the most intense or comprehensive workout I ever had, but it met my goal of moving daily, and it kept me on track with building my new exercise-first-thing habit.

In her book, Rubin talks a lot about setting ourselves up for success. The easier it is to make the right choice in the moment, the more likely we are to stick with the new, healthier habit we are trying to form. In the old days, going to the gym before going to work was a great choice for me because I was already getting in the car to go somewhere. Now that I work at home, getting in the car takes effort, so I do everything I can to make the rest of the process easier.

3) Pack your gym bag and lay out your workout clothes the night before. This makes getting out the door in the morning quick and easy, and removes the possibility I’ll talk myself out of going because I’m not ready. The other big advantage to packing the night before is that I can be pretty sure I’ll remember everything. Finding out I forgot a bra or a brush can be annoying to say the least. But a bag I packed the night before is likely to have everything I need in it. (I could make it even easier on myself by making a packing list to use when I get my bag ready. But I’m not that organized… yet.)

4) Park in the same place in the parking lot. This sounds totally goofy, but I’ve found out that just because I’m awake at 5:30 in the morning doesn’t mean I’m paying attention. My first few days at the gym, it took me longer than I care to admit to remember where I’d parked. So I make it a habit to park in the same section of the parking lot every time, so I have a much smaller area to search if I can’t remember exactly where I left the car.

5) Use the same locker every day, or at least a locker in the same section. This is like the parking trick: it helps me find my locker quickly when I come back from class without having to rack my brains to remember where I put my stuff.

6) Pick exercises you like. I’m currently taking water aerobics three times a week. I love splashing around in the pool and the fact that I can work out hard without getting too hot or injuring myself.

7) If you intend to do an exercise you don’t enjoy, find some other way to make it fun. Half an hour on a stationary bike isn’t my idea of fun. Reading for half an hour is. So I read whenever I’m on the bike. I also make repetitive stretching exercises more interesting by listening to podcasts while I do them.

8) Make friends with the instructor and the other students. This is an extension of #5. Getting to know people in my classes makes it more fun, because then I have people to chat and joke with. I look forward to seeing them, and that’s one more thing to help get me to the gym on time.

9) Get to bed early. (This is also one of Rubin’s favorites.) It’s hard enough to get up when it’s still dark outside. A short night of sleep can make it even harder. Get the rest you need to help make that early morning a little easier to face.

10) Give yourself credit for everything. Whether I spend fifteen minutes walking the dog or a full hour in an intense gym class, I give myself a gold star for moving that day. I still have days where my health and energy aren’t all that great, and if I don’t give myself credit for what I am able to do on those days, I’ll be likely to tell myself “it isn’t worth it” and stop trying at all.

Do you have an exercise habit? What tricks do you use to help yourself stick with it? What things have gotten in your way?

Author: Kit Dunsmore

Kit is a writer and an artist who adores living in Colorado. Whether she's hiking in the mountains or walking the prairies, she's always watching the wildlife in order to learn more about the natural world.

2 thoughts on “10 Tricks for Building An Exercise-First-Thing Habit”

  1. Great post! Like you, I am determined to shape up in order to avoid some of the health problems I see in the elderly people in my family. However, finding an exercise program I can stick with has been the hard part. While the search continues, I have a new activity tracker and am at least being consistent about the number of steps I take each day.

    Good luck!

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    1. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point. I’ve tried lots of different exercises in the last couple of years and finally got smart and thought about what I needed instead of focusing on what is popular. Just getting out for a walk can be a good way to get started. You might also want to check out Better Than Before: she has a “know yourself” section that points out personality traits that can affect our success or failure with certain activities. It might help you home in on the form of exercise that would work best for you.

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