Most people go on and off of their workouts like bad fad diets.
But, just like with clean eating, good sleep and brushing your teeth, consistency in exercise is critical to better health. So how do you rehab your on-again, off-again relationship with the gym to become a fitness faithful? Follow these 10 tips, courtesy of trainers and psychologists, to make fitness a lifelong habit:
1. Forget the 'Go Hard or Go Home' Mentality
Hourlong, sweat-soaked workouts are great, but they don't all have to be so grueling. And, when you're trying to make fitness a habit, they shouldn't be. Besides potentially pushing your body harder than what it's ready for and upping your risk of injury, a "go hard or go home" line of thinking generally ends in you throwing in the towel, says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of "Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love."
End your all-or-nothing approach and prevent burnout by starting small. "If you watch TV, set up a stationary bike and spin easy while watching," says Pat Gilles, a Wisconsin-based certified strength and conditioning coach. "You would be amazed how a set of five push-ups when done throughout the day can equal 200." Bonus: Compared to performing one 30-minute workout, fitting in three 10-minute mini workouts may be superior for improving your heart health, per 2015 research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology.
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2. Stop Waiting to Have Time
"When you decide to work out 'when you have time,' you never will have time and you will never work out," says Lombardo, who recommends scheduling your workouts like any other priority. Because, in fact, they are a priority. "While some studies show the best time to work out is the morning, I find in my clinical practice that the best time really depends on the individual," she says. "If you know you are never going to get up early to go to the gym, then you might do better penning in a time in the evening or during lunch."
3. Give it Eight Weeks
The whole "it takes 21 days to form a habit" is idealistic, if not altogether unrealistic. While, if nothing unexpected or stressful pops up onto your plate, you can likely cement a habit in three weeks, real life includes stress, frustrations, surprises and family drama, Lombardo says. All of that can delay how long it takes for you to get into the exercise groove and make hitting the gym a true habit. For that reason, Mike Donavanik, a certified strength and conditioning coach in Los Angeles, tells his clients that it takes a good eight weeks of consistent workouts to make future ones automatic.
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4. Make it Convenient
Nowadays, between supermarket delivery services and Skype-based therapy sessions, convenience is more important than ever. The same goes for exercise — especially for newbies trying to make it a habit, Gilles says. So if you are looking to join a gym, choose one that's near your home or work — or put together your own one in the basement. If you want to get in a morning workout, lay out your clothes and breakfast the night before, Lombardo says. Consider your workout and make it a point to remove any and all obstacles standing between it and you.
5. Find Your Fitness Personality
When it comes to working out, there's no stronger instigator than intrinsic motivation — the desire to do something simply because you like doing it. So, if you've always left the gym thinking "well, that was no fun," finding a workout that you truly enjoy has the potential to radically change your relationship with exercise, Donavanik says. Try to pinpoint your fitness personality. Do you like to work out with others or need some alone time? Do you like fast-paced workouts or slower ones? Are you competitive or into mindfulness? "If you don't like lifting, go spinning. If you don't like spinning, go do CrossFit. If you don't like CrossFit, do yoga," he says. "I guarantee you can find something that you like. You just need to be open minded to the idea of actually liking something."
6. Get Accountable
"Accountability is an integral part of helping you stick with workouts," Lombardo says. But accountability doesn't have to equate to enlisting the support of a workout buddy. It could mean hiring a personal trainer, placing a bet on GymPact or DietBet, logging workouts in your fitness tracker or signing up in advance for paid workout classes, Gilles says. Again, gauging your fitness personality can help you find the right course of accountability action for you.
7. Stop Using Exercise as Punishment
A lot of people think of exercise as a punishment or a way to "offset" their favorite, less-than-healthy foods. So, as a result, exercise becomes a chore and a time for self-critique, Donavanik says. Sound like you? No wonder you aren't consistent with your workouts. Research from Syracuse University shows that the more dissatisfied people are with their bodies, the more likely they are to avoid exercise. "Instead, when you put 'gym' in your schedule, think of it more as 'me time' and allow yourself the luxury to do something good for yourself," he says. "Make your workout an opportunity to de-stress, to take time just for yourself and to not worry about anything else."
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8. Make the Right Goals
"Focus on performance over results," Lombardo says. "Too often, people base their feelings about exercise according to their results. Thinking such as, 'I haven't lost any weight; this is not working' can ensue. And it's tough to enjoy something when you view it as a failure." By focusing on the immediate rewards of your gym time (for instance, working out increases all-day energy levels, improves sleep quality, fights brain fog and can even take the edge off of a headache) every workout feels worth it.
9. Drop the Comparisons
Comparing yourself to others in the gym — namely those who are fitter than you — is a surefire way to make yourself feel defeated and want to give up. But just because the guy at the squat rack made fitness a habit before you did doesn't mean that you can't, too, Lombardo says. "Remember, any habit is learned," she says. "And anyone, yes anyone, can change." So rather than think, "I'll never be that fast" when someone passes you on the trail, think, "I'm so excited to be that fast."
10. Celebrate Small Victories
Recognizing progress — and giving yourself the kudos you deserve — can help keep you motivated to exercise over the long-haul, says Gilles, who recommends setting continual short- and long-term goals. To spot progress in real-time, try tracking your workouts in an online log or notebook, Donavanik says. Every time you add five pounds to the barbell, or run a mile one second faster than last time, celebrate that. Go ahead and smile, share your achievement with others or celebrate by buying a new pair of shiny sneakers.
K. Aleisha Fetters is a freelance Health + Wellness reporter at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, connectwith her on LinkedIn or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.