You already know that exercise is good for you. Countless studies highlight the benefits of regular physical activity. It prevents disease, improves mental health, decreases the risk of falling (something that scares most of us as we age) and improves cognitive function (yes, it has been shown to lower the risk of dementia). Regular exercise helps control blood pressure, body weight and cholesterol, and reduces the risk of hardening of the arteries, heart attack and stroke. In addition to advancing your mental health, it also strengthens social networks when you join others in an exercise class, a hike, or other group activity. Exercising with a friend promotes a joint sense of purpose and can minimize loneliness.
Why then is it so hard to make exercise part of your routine life? As some of you may know, I have been a group exercise instructor at the World Bank Group for over 27 years. Every January, the Fitness Center would be crowded with people filled with good intentions and New Year’s Resolutions to commit to a healthy lifestyle with a regular exercise program. By the end of January, the Fitness Center was back to normal and most of the newly well-intentioned had disappeared. I would often run into former exercisers in the elevator who asked me how I found the time to commit to a regular exercise program. My response was always the same, “It’s part of my daily routine, like brushing my teeth.” What they were really asking was what they needed to do to make fitness their daily habit. This blog reflects some of my thoughts on how to do so. Here are some pointers to help get you started. While many experts say that it takes 66 days to form a habit, let’s simplify that to say it takes about two months.
- Establish a set time. Whether you’re a morning, lunchtime, or evening person, schedule your exercise for a set time every day (e.g., 9:00 AM) and mark it on your calendars (both paper and digital). If you’re like me and attend fitness classes which are at different times during the week, mark that schedule on your calendars. Send yourself reminders. Stick with it. When you see it on your calendar, you’re less likely to put it off for another day.
- Start slowly. Be kind to yourself. Most of us start something new with lots of enthusiasm and energy. We want to make up for lost time, so we jump into intense activity which our bodies are not yet used to. When we overdo it, the resulting aches and pains make us less likely to exercise the next day and that prevents us from making exercise a daily habit. Start with 15-20 minutes a day of light exercise, e.g., walking. Once you get into that routine, gradually progress to longer and more intense activities.
- Make it fun. Do things that you like to do. If you hate running or biking, why force yourself to do something that gives you no pleasure? If you enjoy nature, hike in a park or simply walk outdoors. Like music or podcasts? Play some in your earbuds when you exercise. Prefer company or want someone to help motivate you? Invite a friend to join you on a regular walk and you will have a partner. If you enjoy something, you’re more apt to look forward to doing it.
- Mix it up. Yes, you’re trying to form a habit, but you don’t want to do the same thing every day. Apart from being bored, you run the risk of repetitive strain injuries, such as shin splints. A good exercise program includes cardiovascular exercise (e.g., walking), muscular conditioning (e.g., lifting light weights) and flexibility exercises (e.g., stretching). If you need some guidance on which exercises are safe and appropriate to your fitness level, many options are available. If you’re a newcomer to a fitness class whether in person or via Zoom, always introduce yourself to the instructor before it begins. The instructor will ask you questions and provide guidance. My yoga instructor knows of my knee issues and suggests modifications so that I can exercise safely. If you prefer one-on-one instruction, work with a personal trainer who can help you develop a program that you can continue at home. Countless videos are available online or from your local library.
One final tip. Exercise does not have to be strenuous, but it does have to be regular to help you make it a habit. Remember to be kind to yourself. If you’re not feeling well and must miss a day, don’t stress. Get back to your routine the next day. You’re doing something good for you. Just keep it up and before you know it, fitness will become part of your daily routine.
Disclaimer: Although moderate physical activity is safe for most people, health experts suggest that you talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program.
KEYWORDS Exercise, Fitness, Habit, Health