Why and how to establish a fitness habit
Many researchers consider walking to be one of the healthiest types of exercise for individuals in general.
If the positive effects of exercise were in the form of a medicinal drug, it would be the most popular medicine in the world. Some of the scientifically proven effects of exercise are the following: Exercise helps prevent you from getting sick by increasing your immunity, helps you maintain and lose weight, increases your life expectancy, boosts your mood and, facilitates your daily movement as your stamina and cardiovascular health improves, reduces stress, prevents injuries, increases your lifespan, and for some individuals it is equally powerful as antidepressants in treating depression.
Starting an exercise habit was the single best decision of my life, and it most likely will be yours, too. It gave me happiness, health and taught me discipline. My daily routine was considerably more difficult before I started to exercise as even small physical tasks were overwhelming. I despised climbing stairs, sprinting to catch the bus – anything related to movement. I'm grateful and proud that I took up the habit as my daily life and energy now reflects that discipline I embraced over the years. Exercise also helps tremendously if you are looking to lose weight.
The best approach to begin working out
It took me several years before I was consistent with my routine. Starting is tough for everyone, but an often successful approach is a gradual progression instead of a jump-start. Establishing a new habit is about consistency, not intensity.
Always adjust your goals based on your fitness level and health. It is generally recommended to consult your doctor about exercise if you're concerned about it. Trying to establish the habit is what matters, not how intense the activity is. Many mistakenly start with running and promptly become nauseous after a small jog. Start with something more modest, like walking around the block for just five minutes. If you can do that consistently for 3–5 times per week, you've already experienced some success and consistency: Now you can up that number to 10 or 15 minutes per session, while focusing on the consistency and not the challenge. This gradual approach is a much more likely way to get your habit to stick.
Scientifically easier to start than most habits
There is one major advantage to building a fitness habit compared to other habits: It is a race against time for your laziness, as the endorphin spike effect greatly assists you with consistency the more you exercise. Your body experiences a potent endorphin spike after a workout (and its potency varies based on the intensity, duration and other factors of your workout): β-endorphin, a natural opioid, is secreted immediately after exercise creating a positive and strong exercise high. This exercise high becomes very addictive after just a few sessions, contributing to helping you establish the habit.
Additional tools to help you start your habit
Here are a few fantastic ways to help you with the consistency of establishing your exercise habit. First off, consider starting the exercise habit with a family friend, partner or someone else close to you. Having you both commit to it helps as you motivate each other and there is no longer an excuse to stay home if the other person is already going. This is an especially powerful method for people living in the same household or housing unit.
The second method is to commit to your habit financially: Give a reasonable sum (such as $150) to a trusted peer, like your parent or partner and tell them that they can ONLY give it back to you once you've established the habit. You now have a financial interest to start your habit, as you've "invested money" into it.
Thirdly, set an incentive for it. Tell the person who you deposited your money that they will buy you something that you've really wanted after you've reached a certain level of consistency. Maybe that can be a new pair of clothes, a new exciting video game, or a book you've planned to get – whatever goal gets you motivated.
Remember to appreciate yourself
Starting a fitness habit isn't like flicking a switch and turning from a sedentary person into a go-getter overnight – for the majority it is a gradual and long process with better and worse weeks. I've included a graph below comparing the false expectation to the actual reality (click the picture to expand it).
Don't let failure get you down on this long journey, either: If you get sick and miss workouts for a week or two or you have something else you need to take care of, that is often out of your control and it is absolutely okay. Establishing a fitness habit isn't about the short-term consistency but instead about the long-term progress and achievement instead. I've had numerous instances where I've been sick consecutively and missed a month of workouts, but it becomes entirely irrelevant as I've had a very consistent six months before that and I see it as a continuation of that on the long-term: Don't focus on 30 consecutive days, focus on 30 days of exercise within three months.
Where to begin: What exercise(s) to choose
I strongly believe in "any exercise is still exercise", and to start a fitness habit you should focus on what you can do most consistently, and thus what you most enjoy. If you've always hated push-ups but loved walks, go on walks instead of doing push-ups. Once you have found consistency with your preferred form of exercise, you can "expand" or "upgrade" by adding in more challenging elements to it. Like doing small sprints during your walks or doing bodyweight squats in addition to push-ups.
This principle applies to almost anything. If you are just excited to start a fitness habit you don't necessarily need an excessively structured plan to go to the gym. Just walking or running on the treadmill for a duration is completely fine – as you get comfortable you can add more complex routines.
Walking is extremely underrated
I think walking is the best type of exercise in the world. You can do it everywhere, in any clothes, every single day, and it has drastically positive effects:
Regular walking can
improve your mood and lower stress
give you more energy and stamina (by increasing your cardiovascular health)
sharpen your mental focus and memory
help you with weight control
improve your cholesterol
prolong your life expectancy
reduce your risk of disease
help you sleep
assist you with muscle recovery
There are dozens of positive effects related to walking, and to me the best part is that I can do it whenever. I don't need to reserve time for it as it is built into my daily life: I walk to the bus stop, I walk to work from the bus stop, I walk to the nearby train station when I see friends, I go on walks in nature to calm myself – walking is an integral part of my life and it helps me with both my mood, health and weight control immensely.
Exercise isn't a race against time: Every type of movement is a skill that accumulates and missing one day doesn't take away from all your previous achievements. Do what you want, with the pace that makes you comfortable. Starting a fitness habit is not about the intensity, but the consistency – even if you have time for only 5 minutes, you're still lapping every single person sitting on the couch.
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