Easy tips for forging your exercise habit

Getting yourself over the humps and feeling good about working out

I’ve really come to relish exercising over the past couple of years. From regular gym classes back in the UK to kicking my running goals here in Australia, I’ve found a lot of pleasure in getting to know my body and what it can do, and pushing myself to achieve more. But even in my most conscientious periods, there are still times when I think ‘can I really be bothered?’ That sluggish reluctance to just get out and run can be a real motivation killer. These feelings can be particularly common when you’re just starting to regularly workout, or you’re getting back into fitness after a break. To help you tackle this I’m sharing some of the things I’ve learnt as a total amateur, without a personal trainer, which have helped me forge a solid exercise habit, and keep me going through the blocks and back on the road.

Variety is the spice of life

It’s easy to feel like you have to choose a sport/activity and simply stick to it. To think that doing one thing a lot will be better than becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. There can be some comfort in picking one thing and easily being able to track your progress in a linear fashion, especially when you’re starting out. But I’ve personally found it a lot easier to build a habit when I’ve also built variety into my workout plan. If you’re doing something a bit different each workout it is a lot harder to fall into a rut, or get that feeling of tedium you can succumb to a few weeks into a program. Variety could be as simple as doing a different type of run each time you head out: try a hill workout one day, a short fast run on your next outing, and round it off with a long, easy effort. Not only will this help you beat the blues, but you’ll also progress better for mixing things up a bit. Beyond this, I’ve also adopted more variety in my chosen activities. When I’m training, I generally aim for three different runs a week, and balance this out with a cycling workout and a session on the rowing machine (I’ve got a few different bits of kit I rely on for my home gym). This means I can alternate and keep things fresh. Even if you choose a main discipline (mine is running) adding other activities can really help improve your performance in that sport, so it’s a win-win!

Make a plan

You will always benefit from planning your workouts. No matter how vague or loose it is, making a commitment to yourself is a really important way to keep in touch with your goals. Whether you’re following a pre-set plan (GTN have some great beginner running plans) or putting one together yourself, take some time to plot out what you’re going to do and when. The key is to be realistic with yourself: I’ve fallen down in the past when trying to stick to a plan that didn’t fit in with the rest of my life. That can leave you feeling even more demoralised, so avoid at all costs! If you know you usually see people on a Friday night, or you have a recurring meeting on Tuesdays that always runs over, don’t plan big workouts for those days.

Sometimes it also helps to have a list you can tick off, or to pop workouts in your calendar. Even if you’re not doing gym classes, treating your home/self-led workouts with the same respect can be a good way to help them become part of your ‘normal’ life.

Have more than one goal

Close-ups or runners' feet at a track starting line
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

This is a good tip to apply to your plan as a whole, but it works just as well on a week-by-week basis or even within each effort itself. It’s undoubtedly good to have an aim for each of your weeks and workouts. From something as simple as wanting to run X kilometres in a week, to meeting your target pace, having goals is a great motivator. But it can be super demoralising when you don’t achieve them. When you’re aiming for a certain 5km time, but it becomes clear on your third kilometre that you’re not going to make that time, it can be very tempting to just give up. You end up having a worse effort overall, and getting home feeling like a failure.

That’s why it really helps to bank a couple of ‘spare’ goals, back-ups for if you don’t make your big ones. Because no matter how hard we try, it’s not always possible to reach those primary goals – sometimes circumstances are out of our control. So if you’ve not made pace, try switching it up. See if you can keep your heartrate in a certain range instead, or aim for a new (but realistic) pace for the remaining kilometres. If you’re on Thursday and you’ve only done one of your scheduled three runs, swap one of them for a strength workout, so you’re still getting some quality work in, but you’re not overloading in one area. Building this flexibility into your approach will help you forge a more honest relationship with yourself and your body, and keep you optimistic even when life gets in the way of your grand plans.

Find the positives in each effort

View over the handlebars of a bike into an urban sunset.
Photo by Flo Karr on Unsplash

Sticking to a plan may have its benefits, but with the best will in the world, there are times when it can feel a bit too much like just another job. What helps me is to find at least one positive aspect of each workout – something that makes me look forward to that session which is different to all the others. For instance, my training week might look like this:

  • Monday – 5km fast run. This is great because I know it will take me a short, set amount of time. Easy to squeeze in at the end of the day to decompress after getting back to work, and leaves me feeling I had a productive day.
  • Tuesday – rowing machine/erg interval session. A rowing workout means I get to watch videos as I go! I can put on one of my favourite YouTubers (I’m very late to the party but have recently discovered Contrapoints!) and catch-up on content, all while smashing out a quality session.
  • Wednesday – mixed running intervals. These are probably the most challenging of my runs, as they’re focused on upping my base pace by pushing as hard as I can for short intervals. So these are admittedly hard to find a positive for! But I go with the format of the workout itself being the silver lining. The hard efforts are based on time rather than distance, and alternate with easier rest jogs, so I know that even if it feels awful at the time, I’ve only got to keep going for a finite time, and then I can reward myself with a rest. You get a nice cooldown distance at the end, and even if you don’t make the pace you want, simply the act of trying means you’re getting what you need from it.
  • Thursday – cycle workout. At the moment I’m still doing my cycle sessions at home, so the positive would be getting to do a video workout. My favourites are those offered by GCN and GTN – they’re upbeat, friendly and accessible, and there are loads to choose from so no two workouts need be the same. I always end up pushing harder than I expect, but there’s something going on psychologically for me that seems to make bike workouts a bit easier than runs, so that’s a bonus too.
  • Friday – long and relaxed run. These are podcast runs – I’ll whack on a ‘You’re Wrong About’, or ‘The Friendship Onion’, pick a long route, and settle into a steady jog. You can ignore the watch, and take a chance to switch off and celebrate the end of the working week.
  • Saturday or Sunday – easy top-up workout. Depending on how the rest of the week has gone, I might throw in an extra easy run or bike workout. The positive here is mostly that I get to feel virtuous for completing an extra session, but the fact that I can choose my discipline is another bonus.

Whatever it is that gets you going, try to find something good to say about each of your sessions, something to look forward to. Don’t think about how much it’ll hurt, focus on that plus side and use it to reward yourself for your dedication and commitment.

Listen to your body

This tip comes up all the time in fitness chats, but I feel it’s one that’s all too easy to ignore. It can sometimes seem like a bit of a meaningless mantra, ‘listen to your body, listen to your body, listen to your body’. How do you know you’re listening to your body, and not just using it as an excuse? This is a moralisation I struggle with all the time. When you’re trying to untangle internalised issues about what exercise is ‘for’, you can really guilt yourself for not trying ‘hard enough’. But I’m working towards being confident in trusting my body. Our health and fitness are impacted by so much that is beyond our control, and sometimes going out for your planned session just isn’t the right thing for your body, or your mind. At least it can leave you feeling rubbish after a bad effort, at work you can risk injury. So really try to tune into your muscles and joints, and push aside those moralising thoughts that will make you doubt yourself. You will thank yourself when you come to your next workout feeling fresher and in control of your body and mind.

Have something to aim for

Running the Great Ocean Road Half-Marathon

This builds on some of my earlier tips, and takes it to the next level. For this one, try to have an event to aim for when planning your training. Not the easiest thing when you’re constantly in and out of lockdowns and restrictions (as we have been in Melbourne over the last year), but it can make a big difference to know you have an exciting adventure to build towards. I found it a lot easier to train once I’d set my sights on the Great Ocean Road Half-Marathon, and it was a fantastic feeling when all my hard work paid-off. If there aren’t any suitable events in your area, pick a reasonable date, a sensible goal, and set your schedule by it. It could be something like your first 50km cycle, lifting a certain weight for the first time, or reaching a personal best in your running. Whatever it is, having something tangible will focus your efforts and make it all feel worthwhile.

These tips have grown organically from my experience as an amateur runner over the last year. COVID-19 has made it harder than ever to develop a good routine in some ways, but the time freed up by not commuting has definitely had its benefits. Getting into a steady exercise habit has really helped me stay happy and healthy through these stressful times. It’s always going to be difficult at the start, but if you can find ways to build the habit it will eventually settle, and you’ll wonder how you coped without it! It doesn’t matter if your goals are huge challenges or relatively modest, find something that works for you, and embrace it!

I hope these tips will help you along your own fitness journey, and to find your fitness groove – it is such a rewarding feeling when you do.

Thanks so much for reading! I’d love to hear your tips about how to cope when you fall out of love with working out. I certainly still have my moments of hesitation and hit some of those walls, so please do share your advice in a comment below!

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