exercise habit

The 4 Steps to Building an Exercise Habit

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.” – Charles C. Noble.

Committing to exercise is always a difficult thing.  We throw ourselves at the task only to quit a few months later because we just don’t have the time for it.  Over the years I’ve come to realize that exercise isn’t something we find time for, but rather it’s a behavior we need to build up so that it carves a space for itself in our daily routine.  Just like how brushing our teeth is something we just do in the morning, exercise can be just something we do on a daily basis without having to think about it.  So how can we make exercise as automatic as brushing our teeth? By approaching it with the intent to build a habit.

Here are the 4 steps you can take to build the exercise habit:


  1. Shrink the change – If you have ever pledged to work out everyday for an hour only to end up back where you started, it may be because the change was too big.  Make your new exercise habit small and make it so easy to do that you can’t find an excuse not to do it.  For example instead of working out for an hour just exercise for 15 minutes, or get very specific and very small and start with just 10 pushups a day. Shrinking the change helps you get some quick wins, which in turn remove the dread of the task and get the progress rolling toward your new exercise habit.
  2. Create a trigger and place your behavior immediately behind it – A trigger is a reminder, physical or not, that spurs you to do a particular action.  For example putting your running shoes right in front of your door might remind you to run for 10 minutes in the morning, or an afternoon text message from a friend might remind you to drop and do 10 pushups.  The best type of triggers are things you already do without thinking, things like going to the bathroom in the morning, or brushing your teeth work well as triggers.  When designing for behavior change place your new exercise habit behind a trigger and do the action immediately after it.
  3. Train the cycle and escalate – Habits take time to form.  Some experts say a month, others say less or more than that, really it doesn’t matter how long it takes, just continue to do the action everyday until you don’t have to think about it anymore.  Once you hit this zone, start escalating the habit, for example adding an extra mile, or 20 more pushups. The idea is that now that the habit has carved its own space in your routine you can start adding more things to your workout and feel confident that you’ll keep it up.
  4. Shape your environment – This is about assessing your environment and redesigning it in ways that nudge you to exercise.   For example you could redesign your social circle by surrounding yourself with people who exercise daily, or you could redesign your physical space by purchasing a pullup bar to trigger you to do your 5 daily pullups.  You could also add an incentive or reward and connect it to your new habit, like treating yourself to a massage at the end of the week.  Either way it’s important to shape the environment around you to make getting up and moving around as mindless as possible.

Changing any behavior into a habit requires thoughtful design and patience, but on the other side of all that is a sense of control over the habits that that can keep you on a path to health and happiness. So remember, keep the change small, create a trigger, train the cycle and shape the path and you’ll be on your way to a healthier and fit you.

Kevin Asuncion is a NASM certified personal trainer and Founder of Movemo, a health and fitness company that teaches and empowers those who move our world forward to live healthier so that they can increase the positive change they make in the world.

Photo credit: Mike Baird


17 Responses to The 4 Steps to Building an Exercise Habit

  1. It takes a while to build habits, especially the ones which we know are good for us but are not so fun to carry out.
    Thanks for a great read!

  2. yuxi says:

    4 Very good steps! Another thing that I’ve found to be particularly good for developing the habit of exercising is (I suppose this goes into the environment step!) but if you already have a habit of watching a certain TV show – do it whilst on a treadmill! Even if you’re just walking at a slow pace you’re still doing a lot more than you would be sitting on the couch!

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    you’re looking for the top online colleges offering degree programs in your

  4. Ted Werth says:

    Good advice.  I used to try a program that had 50 minutes of intense weights 3 times a week.  It was only when I reconfigured this to do 1-2 sets everyday that it stuck.  As the habit developed I started to look forward to this part of my day.

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  6. Clevergems says:

    Good points! I like the “shrink the change” notion. It is true…oftentimes we set goals that are too difficult to maintain. 

    How would you further recommend doing #4 if your main peer group doesn’t exercise?

  7. Bartnof says:

    It is so true about forming habits.  Once you make the change as part of your everyday routine.  It ends up becoming a life changing habit that increases your mindy, body, and spirit through proper exercise and diet.  The key is to make exercising and dieting FUN!!!  To keep it interesting you should change up your exercises as well as a balanced nutritional diet.

  8. #3 sounds great! One should truly make practice of exercising on daily basis. Looking forward for such more articles.

  9. Sharon Graham says:

    Great information.  I’m challenging myself to exercise every day this month and this is super helpful information.  I’m blogging about it here, mostly for the external accountability factor.  http://mymonthlyhabit.blogspot.com/

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  12. Lucas James says:

    Excellent 4 steps! I do the same thing with my clients and it’s great to see an article like this! I’m blogging about my experiences too http://LucasJamesPersonalTraining.com

  13. Pingback: How to make exercise a habit: Think small | Integrative Personal Training

  14. Laurel says:

    Creating a trigger (yoga before bed) and truly realistic but progressive goals (I started at a 5 min walk! and end up at 30 min daily) worked for me. Thanks for the add’l tips!

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