9 Psychological Tricks to Develop a Fitness Habit
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Why are fitness habits so difficult to create?
A fitness habit isn’t inherently harder to form than other habits, but the culture surrounding fitness causes problems. In particular, I’m picking a fight with “Just Do It.”
The advice “just do it” or “suck it up and work out” is flawed because, for beginners, it leaves too many questions. How should I do it? When should I do it? Where should I do it? How often should I do it? What is “it?”
Without simple answers to those questions, exercise can seem like an unpleasant, overwhelming chore.
Even worse, “just do it” implies that people not doing it are somehow flawed. If working out is as easy as just doing it, then the only explanation for not working out is laziness.
The truth is, you aren’t just lazy. Starting new habits is hard, and slip-ups are to be expected. The psychology of habit formation repeatedly shows that willpower is a terrible way to stay consistent over the long term.
Here are 9 psychological tactics you can use instead.
Habits are cued by other activities in our lives. We brush our teeth after getting out of bed and we eat because the clock tells us it’s lunchtime.
Connecting exercise to a solid event that you know will happen is a great way to stay consistent. I know that I will leave work at 5 every weekday – instead of going home, I bring my workout clothes with me and go straight the gym.
This chaining is also why it can be hard to work out if there’s no cue. Even though I’ve been working out for years, I still have trouble getting off my butt on the weekends. The weekends have no structure – there are no mandatory activities and no momentum to carry me into a workout.
Without a cue, it’s a lot harder to get moving.
I mentioned bringing my workout clothes with me to work – a classic example of precommitment.
Precommitments are actions that get you invested in going to the gym. If you’ve committed to going with a partner, you’re hardly going to leave them hanging.
Similarly, bringing clothes with you to work, packing your gym bag in advance, or laying out your workout clothes before bed for a morning workout are tricks that make it easier to stay consistent.
If I have doubts, I think to myself “well, I’ve already prepared everything to go to the gym, so I might as well follow through.”
Giving yourself rewards is super common advice, but it’s also usually done wrong. Think of common rewards:
- Your favorite food, or a nice dessert
- An expensive new book, toy, game, or article of clothing (once you’ve done a certain number of workouts)
- A nice nap
Behaviorism, the field in psychology that studies rewards, suggests that none of those are good options. Most common rewards have one of three problems:
- They are too big (and therefore infrequent)
- They aren’t connected to gym-going
- They happen too long after a workout
In order to be effective, a reward needs to occur frequently and immediately after a workout. Plus, it needs to be associated with going to the gym – the reward doesn’t mean much if you can have it whenever you want.
You can get creative with this too. I hated doing my physical therapy, but I love grape juice. At the same time, I don’t keep it around my apartment because I know I would guzzle the stuff.
Every time I finish my PT, I take out the bottle of juice and do a shot of it. Is that weird? Maybe. But it works, and I haven’t missed a PT session since.
4. Reducing Barriers
Make it as easy as possible to say yes to a workout.
If you have a bag of chips sitting next to you at your desk, you’ll probably dip into it for a handful every so often. But if that bag of chips is down a flight of stairs and in the back of a kitchen cabinet, you’re probably less like to eat them.
With fitness, do the opposite by removing barriers wherever possible.
Reducing barriers could mean switching to a gym that’s closer to your house, having a set program so that you’re never wondering what you should be doing, or preparing your gym bag in advance (also a precommitment).
Reducing barriers to activities you want to do makes you more likely to follow through.
5. Set Better Goals
Everyone talks about goal setting, but most people don’t set goals effectively. A good goal is specific, realistic, and personally important.
A goal like “lose weight” or “build muscle” is too vague. How? How much? By when? These goals raise too many questions and make it harder to strategize.
A goal like “gain 60 pounds of muscle in the next 3 months” is basically impossible, and can lead to frustration. I actually think being realistic is overrated, and that you can self correct later (more on this in a bit), but things are easier if you start on the right track.
A goal like “lose 20 pounds in the next 3 months so that I can fit into my old high school jeans” is much better. It allows for a clear assessment of success, gives a specific time frame, and has a specific outcome.
Too many people say they work out to “lose weight” or “be healthy,” but you can have more success by getting specific. Why will losing weight improve your life, personally?
It might give you more confidence, or help you be more attractive to people you’re interested in, or have some other positive outcome. The important part is that you understand how your goal would impact you.
6. Set Checkpoints
Checkpoints are times to check in on your progress, and are why it’s ok to be unrealistic. When you set a 3 month goal, check in after one month to see how you’re doing.
If you haven’t made progress or your goal progress is too slow, don’t worry about it! A checkpoint is designed to correct your mistakes and get back on track. That way you don’t wind up at your deadline and realize you haven’t make any progress.
It’s amazing how few people use checkpoints, but this one trick can be the difference between a successful, healthy lifestyle and feeling ashamed when you walk past mirrors.
7. Identify Roadblocks
When we set goals, we often become overly optimistic. Don’t get me wrong – optimism is a good thing. But being too optimistic makes us ignore the hard parts and get frustrated when we encounter the challenges that any goal will have.
The fix is simple: figure out what the roadblocks will be in advance. Spend 5 minutes writing down all the potential challenges you can face on the path to success.
Not only will you appreciate that achieving your goal won’t always be easy (and therefore be more likely to stick with it when the hard parts happen), but you won’t be surprised when you actually do encounter the challenges on your list.
8. Overcome Roadblocks
With a list of roadblocks in hand, you can go one step further to really up your success.
You have a list of challenges that you will probably encounter, so now all you have to do is solve them. It can be hard to figure out how to fix problems in the moment, so planning your solutions out in advance makes everything much easier.
Be specific here too. “Having low energy” is not a specific enough roadblock. Something like “I’m tired when I get home from work and just want to collapse and watch Netflix” is much better. When you get specific, it becomes a lot easier to find solutions.
When I had to deal with being tired after work, I used chaining and went to the gym right away, avoiding the temptation of my bed and computer.
You can get creative in your solutions, but having a plan in place for the times that you really don’t want to work out makes everything easier.
9. Create Your Master Plan
Once you have a plan in place for actually getting to a workout, make a plan for what you will do and when.
Having a set program to follow takes the guesswork out of your workouts. Procrastination is often caused by uncertainty, so reducing uncertainty with a specific plan is a procrastination killer.
Along with that, set specific times to work out. If you vaguely know you have to get 3 workouts in this week, it’s easy to push them back to later. If you know that you’ll workout on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 5:45pm, it’s a lot harder to justify skipping.
Any one of these tips can turn you from a couch potato into a gym regular, if you use it well enough. The more you use, the more likely you are to master your psychology, stop being lazy, and get the results you want.
About the Author
Benyamin Elias is a fitness and habit coach for people who are tired of hearing "Just Do It." He uses his degree in Psychology to help people look good by developing healthy lifestyles, conquering fear of the gym, and finding workout programs they can stick to – even if their only workout is straining to get off the couch.
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