5 ways to make exercise a habit, according to a fitness expert

Struggling to turn your sporadic fitness escapades into habits? Try these 5 expert tips

Smiling attractive young woman doing push-ups on the beach
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When it comes to exercise, it's one thing to get motivated, but how do you stay motivated? Whilst drive is essential, what you really need is to create habits that will help you stay on track with your new, healthier lifestyle for longer. And while, at face value, it's easy to create long-term habits, it's a whole different story to do it in real life. Is it impossible, though? No, especially with these expert tips. 

A habit takes typically around 21 days to form and is a behavioural pattern that we repeatedly perform. They happen automatically, and the more you do them, the deeper they’ll become stored in your brain. Exercise can sometimes feel like a strain as physical results aren’t instant. If your goal is to lose weight, the process is relatively slow and requires commitment, which can cause frustration.

There are things you can do which can train your brain to perceive exercise as a habit in your life, the same as washing the dishes and running a bath! We’ve called on Joanna Dase, fitness expert at Curves International (opens in new tab) to explain all. Once you read through Joanna's tips, try these 3 essential bodyweight exercises to build muscle at home or build leg muscle with this single-dumbbell workout. Or get bigger arms in just 30 days with this 8-move arm workout.

1. Bring a friend

Joanna says having a workout buddy is a great way to form a habit.

"You’ll both be accountable for each other and feel responsible for turning up and completing a workout together", she adds, "Having each other’s support will create a consistent routine and build motivation. On the days when you don’t feel in the mood, you can look to your exercise buddy to give you a boost of morale."

Person packing his gym gear into a gym bag

(Image credit: King Kong Apparel)

2. Plan your cues

Having certain cues in place helps to trick your brain into thinking about exercise. This is something which needs to be maintained for around 20 days that can create a connection between yourself and exercise, Joanna explains.

"From having your gym bag packed and ready in the car the night before, putting on your workout clothes/workout shoes as soon as you wake up or writing down your workout plan so it’s the first thing you see when you wake up", she suggests, "At the same time, you can take note of the triggers which you urge you to skip your workout, such as drinking alcohol the night before. After a time, your cues will help you to form healthy habits."

3. Reward your success

Rewarding yourself for hard work can make a difference to your motivation and habit forming.

"A reward can be any size, but something personal which you can work towards", Joanna says, "From scheduling in a spa appointment once a certain number of steps are achieved at the end of the week to going to the cinema if you complete a week of workouts. Positive reinforcements can go a long way in turning the chore of exercise into a fun activity. Always give yourself credit for every workout you complete and the strength you are gaining."

Muscular man doing sideways planks at home surrounded by ketlebells and dumbbells

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4. Avoid having an all-or-nothing attitude

Joanna says that part of why exercise habit breaks is because you are putting too much pressure on yourself. Staying fit isn’t about being in the gym for hours on end; it’s about staying within your ability. "A little exercise is better than nothing, and it’s not worth enduring painful activities which aren’t on your level yet, as this can cause injury", she notes, "Having any amount of physical activity in your routine will have a positive impact on your mental and emotional health."

5. Focus less on results

Unfortunately, you can’t get into shape overnight, and having high expectations means you are less likely to form habits due to disappointment and quitting.

"Try not to get discouraged by how long there is to go before you reach your fitness goals or by what you can’t accomplish", Joanna recommends, "Instead of focusing on results, try to focus your energy towards consistency on completing your exercise each day. You will find that the physical rewards will come quickly once your attention isn’t on the results."

Matt is T3's Fitness Editor and covers everything from smart fitness tech to running and workout shoes, home gym equipment, exercise how-tos, nutrition, cycling, and more. His byline appears in several publications, including Techradar and Fit&Well, and he collaborated with other fitness content creators such as Garage Gym reviews.