Real talk: Starting new fitness habits is hard. Turning those big fitness dreams into a healthy routine that’s actually repeatable? That can feel damn near impossible. The problem is, simply setting an intention to hit the gym every a.m. before work or commit to doing daily app workouts (for real this time, you promise) isn’t enough. Does that mean our wellness goals are destined to stay just outside of our reach?
5 Ways to Make Your Fitness Habits Happen
Of course not. The secret is in the science of behavior change, and once you know the basics, you can create the fitness habits of your dreams. Or at least squeeze in some exercise a few times a week.
To create fitness habits (or any habits for that matter) that stick around for the long haul, you have to actually change your behavioral patterns. Sound like a big goal? It is, but you’re not alone here. For this, we turn to the wonderful world of behavioral psychology, which makes breaking bad habits and building better ones its business.
Using the power of these science-backed behavior-change strategies, here’s how to make those fitness goals sustainable (for real this time—we promise).
1. Set specific, realistic goals
There’s a large body of research that links setting goals to success. But not so fast—not all goals are created equal. If you want to really build fitness habits for the long haul, science suggests you should set goals that are:
- Measurable: You can track your progress towards a specific outcome
- Actionable: You know exactly what you need to do to get it done; the more detail the better
- Realistic: You’re not biting off more than you’ll be able to chew. (Yup, running eight miles and then hitting boot camp six times a week is probably too much.)
In a 2011 analysis of goal-setting studies, researchers found that specific goals are the most effective at actually establishing the habits that will turn your fitness fantasies into reality. Rather than setting an ambiguous goal like “work out more,” aim for goals like “join a training group that meets three times a week to run the marathon next year.” It’s a small difference that can make a big difference.
2. Plan ahead
One of the biggest obstacles to maintaining our healthy new fitness habits? Life.
A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that personal factors and environmental factors can all sabotage your plans to make regular spin classes sustainable—think everything from feeling time-crunched, to a long commute between your office and your fav studio, to bad weather that makes you want to stay inside, to that last minute suggestion you and your coworkers just go out for happy hour instead.
The trick is to have a plan in place ahead of time for when life threatens to derail your goal. For example, if a sudden snowstorm ices your plans for a run, have Netflix cued up and binge while you get a long run in on the treadmill—no excuses.
No treadmill? How about making a workout game to your fav show? Think drinking games, but instead of taking shots, you’re dropping squats. You’re welcome.
3. Enlist a workout partner
It helps to have someone in your corner. Our social support systems (or lack thereof) are a huge part of the science behind changing behaviors. A 2012 study among women in behavior-based weight loss groups found that those who had support from friends and family were more likely to achieve their health goals than women who were going it alone.
In short, getting over that finish line—literally and figuratively—is way easier when you have people cheering you on. In the pursuit of your healthy habit, grab a friend to hit the gym with you or join a group that aligns with your fitness interests.
Hitting snooze will be way less appealing when you know you’ll have 20 texts from your running group blowing up your phone if you don’t show.
4. Track your progress
Tracking your progress is a key part of making sure those newly budding fitness habits stick around, according to the principles of behavior change.
In a 2016 research analysis on the potential for fitness trackers to help you stick to your gym goals, researchers found that many mainstream trackers incorporate principles of behavior change (like goal setting, plugging into social support, and earning rewards). And while more research is needed to determine if they create long-term change, they can play a role in building your fitness habits in the early stages.
Even if you’re not into wristbands, fitness apps, and plastering social with your stats, keeping track of your progress is still a critical component of creating a habit. Check in daily somehow, whether you’re logging the details into your phone or just ticking the box with a real pen. (Weird, right?)
5. Reward yourself
This one is actually fun: As you work hard toward sticking to those fitness habits, don’t forget to treat yo’self.
Research shows that incentives do play a role in motivating behavior change when it comes to crushing your fitness goals. A 2015 review of studies on exercise incentives found that a reward was particularly useful for helping you kick off a physical activity habit. And FYI: Nine out of the ten studies the researchers looked at used financial incentives. Apparently, we move for a little money.
Interestingly, the findings were mixed about how effective incentives are at helping you stick to habits long-term. Still, a little treat here and there for staying on track can’t hurt.
Here are some ways to try it: Sweeten the sound of your early morning alarm by promising to reward yourself with the concert tickets you’ve been dying for only if you hit your goal of running three times that week.
Want to try the financial route? Try Stickk—you make a contract with yourself to move more or eat better and identify an organization that gets your money if you don’t keep your promises to yourself. The catch? The organization you choose should be one that goes against your values. That way, you’re really motivated to not lose money and to not support a cause you don’t believe in.
Understanding these tricks for behavior change can help take your fitness goal from a frustratingly-hard-to-maintain dream to a successfully-sustainable habit.
What tricks have you used to stick to a healthy new habit? Tell us in the comments.
Author: Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance writer and content strategist. When she doesn’t have her nose in a research journal or the New York Times, she’s likely to be found looking for punny greeting cards or an excuse to explore a new travel spot.