It’s the start of a new year so suddenly we’re all wondering: How do you go about starting a workout routine? Because truthfully, we know that consistent exercise is one of the healthiest habits you can form. There’s the physical stuff—like reducing your risk of heart disease and diabetes—and the mental stuff—like feeling happier, having more confidence, and hitting your goals. But there’s always the lingering question: How do you actually do it?
Look we know that taking a goal of regularly exercising from concept to reality can take some work. But we promise it’s worth it. And thankfully, science has a lot to say on how starting a workout routine and keeping it going can become automatic.
Starting a Workout Routine: 5 Steps to Build An Exercise Habit This Year
So if you’re asking yourself how do I start a workout plan in 2019, ask no more. All you have to read on.
Step 1: Know your why
We’ve gone over some reasons why working out is awesome, but don’t leave it to us to tell you why you’re dead set on starting a workout routine this year. Maybe it’s those health benefits. Or maybe you want to hike in Yellowstone by the end of the year or chase your kids around. No matter what your reason is, understanding your motivation is an important part of getting started with a workout routine.
Knowing your “why” guides your specific goals and can help keep you on track if you feel like quitting—which is totally normal by the way. Think you might forget your why? Write it down. Then keep it somewhere where it will motivate you to keep going.
Once you have your why, it’s time to start moving, figuratively and literally.
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Step 2: Set SMART goals
We’re all about the phrase “work smarter, not harder” around here. And fortunately, that applies to starting a workout routine too. The best way to do that? Get smart, as in set SMART goals. These goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-oriented, and there’s a lot of evidence that they can help you start and stick with a new habit, including a workout routine.
Want to see how SMART goals can be helpful for starting a workout routine? We’ve got you covered.
How to set a SMART goal for your fitness habit
“I want to exercise more” is not a specific goal—how much is more? What counts as exercise? Instead, get down with the details: when, where, how. For example, running for ten minutes straight or going to three yoga classes a week are specific goals. Bonus? Research has found that this type of goal keeps people more motivated than vague goals like “I want to exercise more.”
Luckily for you, most exercise routines are measurable. Whether you’re counting steps or minutes of exercise, there are a lot of ways to set measurable goals for a new workout routine. Just don’t forget to actually measure them as you go. Measuring and tracking also help keep you accountable to yourself.
For most of us, especially people just starting an exercise routine, running a marathon probably isn’t a realistic first goal. But that aforementioned running for ten minutes straight might be. Or maybe taking the stairs instead of the elevator once a day is right for you.
Starting with small goals can keep starting a workout routine from overwhelming you. Maybe you do want to run that marathon one day, but many people naturally get discouraged if they don’t reach their goals right away. That’s why it’s better to work your way up from smaller, more attainable goals, based on your own abilities and motivations. You can always change your goals as you go along.
This goes back to the “why” you identified earlier on. For example, if your goal is to increase your endurance, yoga won’t hurt, but it’s probably not as good as running. Make sure that how you plan to achieve your goals ties directly back to why you have those goals in the first place.
Giving yourself milestones and checkpoints helps keep you motivated and on-track. For example, if your goal is to run a mile by the end of the month, you have to take steps throughout the month to get there. The deadline helps keep you focused on what you’re trying to achieve.
Step 3: Find something you enjoy—and try more if the first one doesn’t work for you
We all have that friend who just can’t shut up about her workout routine. Maybe her yoga instructor is the best in the city, or she just doesn’t understand why you would go anywhere but SoulCycle. And the thing is: She’s actually on to something—finding your exercise passion can help make a fitness routine a reality.
You might not love the first thing you try. That’s okay. There are plenty of types of exercises out there, and what works for someone else may not be your thing. Don’t be discouraged if you need to “shop” around while you figure out what makes sweat worth it to you.
As you’re trying out exercises, just remember to keep your SMART goal in mind—balancing your enjoyment with making sure the exercise is achievable and relevant is important for long-lasting success. Of course, your specific goal might change as you discover new exercises you love, but make sure the new goal meets the criteria to be SMART.
Step 4: Make it easy on yourself
Now you have your why, your SMART goals, and something you want to do, but how do you actually make sure you keep going? A good way to keep your routine up is to put systems in place to make things easy on yourself by making your environment work for you.
If you know you’ll never go to the gym across town, join the one on your way home. You can also try packing up your workout gear the night before or putting exercise on your calendar to make sure that time is protected.
Step 5: Keep yourself accountable
If no one knows that you’re trying to start and keep a workout routine, it can be that much easier to quit. Simply put, we’re more likely to do something we say we will when others are watching us.
You can try making regular workout plans with a friend or letting your partner see your FitBit steps. The goal is to have someone to encourage you and make sure you follow through, not to shame you if you don’t.
Keep going until your workout habit is automatic
So now you have a good handle on why starting an exercise routine is important to you, have formulated a SMART goal for that routine, and have figured out what type of exercise you actually like. You’ve thought about how it can be easier for you to get those workouts done and how to get your people on-board. Now what?
The answer, as you might guess, is to keep going. Keep doing that exercise, keep reformulating your goals, and keep moving forward. Easier said than done, we know, but if you start with the above steps, you’ll be well on your way to making a regular workout routine a reality.
Your turn: Are you planning on starting a workout routine this year? Tell us how you’re going to make it happen.
Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.