Building the Exercise Habit Part 1: Understanding Habits

Two years after turning 35 I realized that if I wanted to prolong my life, have mood stability, and prevent steady weigh gain – I have to start exercising regularly. I realized my days of cutting out carbs and going for walks to shed a few holiday pounds are gone. I needed to start regular cardiovascular exercise with strength/resistance training – and I have to do it regularly. Otherwise my risk of heart disease, diabetes, being unhappy and feeling less confident in my body go up, way up. As a skeptic of the diet and fitness industry, this was a hard truth to accept. Currently, I am about 40 days into building a lifelong exercise habit that will (hopefully) carry into my 40s, and I will write about what I learned in this series.

I am not competitive by nature – I personally think competition is a waste of energy as ultimately no one can win at EVERYTHING (also is it “winning” if no one gives a shit, more on that some other day). I do not play sports – I never had much opportunity growing up in Bangladesh but also not much talent either. So how do I make sure I exercise regularly? Even when I had endless time, I was not able to stick to an exercise routine long-term. Like many people, I joined a gym or a class. Then went 3 times a week for about 2-3 weeks, then dropped down to 1 time for another 2 weeks, then stopped altogether until next cycle, usually a month (or more) later.

Yet, I was fast approaching 40 and it seemed necessary to build a permanent habit. I found the internet to be utterly unhelpful when it came to exercise. Internet just has way too much (and often contradictory) information. I found science-based, government backed websites were keen to avoid injury in the readers, so they were ultra conservative. These sites suggested things like walking briskly for 30 minutes every day as a great way to get cardio – which I suppose is helpful in general and certainly better than nothing. But I am a healthy 38 year old, not an ailing 80 year old. I am certain I am capable of a hell of a lot more!

On the flip side, casual fitness type websites, overemphasized gyms with a big focus on weight training . At my current fitness level, I simply could not accept an overhead of 1 hour of commute/dressing of gym for 30-45 minutes of workout that I will do.

Finally, all of the articles focused on “failure” to build an exercise habit as a function of willpower. Article after article wrote at length about how we run out of motivation. And quite unintentionally these articles equated inability to build an exercise habit with a lack in strength of character, which is total nonsense.

Anyway, I literally read more than 50 articles – scientific and non-scientific- to help me prepare for my goal of establishing an exercise habit. And after all that reading, I essentially found three useful nuggets:

  1. A complex habit like exercising takes 6 months to a year to build.
  2. Spontaneously running out of motivation is just one (small) factor in why so many of us have trouble with regular exercising.
  3. A good mix of cardio and resistance/strength training are self-reinforcing activities that ultimately contribute to feeling good.

We are told it takes 21 days to build a habit (or something like that). It turns out, this is a terrible, terrible lie (or oversimplification). Small, easy habit like flossing can be reasonably built in 21 days (by the way, it’s very easy to lose that habit as well).

Exercising is a multi-faceted, complex habit that is made up of a series of behaviours. Something like that takes months (or maybe even a year) to build. Statistics show that more than 50% of people drop their new years resolution to exercise within 6 months. So going to the gym 2-3 times a week, by gritting our teeth for 3 weeks in a row, was not going to be enough, rather we have do it for more than 6 months. That is really, really hard to do. No wonder so many of us “fail”.

Given that we need to sustain this new habit for six months, I found the willpower angle for why so many of us are unable to build this habit super incomplete. We do not arrive at the age of 40 by not picking up strength of character – most of us are so strong and so determined to achieve our goals. Focusing on willpower alone completely ignores the complex reality we all lead and six months is a LONG time to live in a bubble.

These articles all GROSSLY neglect the myriad real factors that prevent people from building their exercise habit. Things such as lack of time, lack of energy, too many commitments, not enough money, not knowing what to do, randomly getting the flu, illness in the family, getting a new job, work pileup, back or leg injuries, period of anxiety/depression, losing a job, kids getting sick. These are not “excuses”, rather these are the realities that prevent people from building a new and complex habit.

Finally, it became obvious after reading all the legit sources that cardiovascular exercises are awesome for mental health, feeling good and strengthening the heart. While resistance training is great for maintaining muscles, bone health and overall well-being. Ignoring either is not an option, especially after 40. Note – weight-loss by the way, is it’s own mysterious thing that I will write about later.

So what does all of this mean in terms of building my exercise habit? It meant that:

1. I needed to mentally prepare myself for more than 6 months of regular exercising. I like to use the shower analogy. Showering is a relatively complex habit (especially for women with long hair) and takes anywhere from 10-40 minutes end to end and involves many steps like undressing, cleaning, hair washing, basic grooming, drying, and then getting dressed. Yet we do this nearly every day. If we are struck with the flu, and can’t shower for a few days, none of us say “meh, I guess I no longer have a shower habit”. Instead the FIRST decent day we rush in to the shower. Most of us feel very uncomfortable if we miss more than one of our regular shower session (e.g. if you shower every day, missing one day is cool, missing two days is yucky) even though most of us are not super gross after a few days of not showering.

So I realized, exercising needed to be like showering: when I miss a few days, I don’t give up the activity, I double down and exercise more. And that unfortunately will take over 6 months, and I need to commit for that long.

2. I had to focus on the actual and tangible barriers to my habit instead of beat myself over lack of willpower. I am confident I do not lack strength of character, so focusing on willpower is not useful. I needed to focus instead on all the *things* that actually prevented my previous attempts at regular exercise. Some common ones were: not finding my exercise equipment like running shoes, not having enough time to go to the gym AND exercise, random tings like being hungry, getting sick within 2/3 weeks of starting my routine, having a pile of work to do and picking a time of day that was not ideal. Once I figured out solutions for each of these real barriers, I could figure out the maintaining motivation piece a lot more easily.

3. I had to learn easy ways to get 30-45 minutes of good cardio and establish an effective weight training routine. Cardio was normal for me, I’ve been to step classes and Zumba etc. many times in the past – so I had basic knowledge of what would work. But weight training was a mystery to me – I dabbled a bit with free weights but nothing remotely serious. So I needed to learn what the heck I was doing by watching a bunch of YouTube videos and preparing a set of exercises I could do to cover the cardio and the weight portion of the requirement.

Once I figured all the above out, it was time to execute. Currently, I am 1.5 months into my 6 month plan of building an exercise habit. The first 3 weeks, as predicted were “easy” and awesome but I’ve had some challenges since then, but all in all I am doing great! I’ll dive into more details of each of the areas in my next posts.

Check out the following posts where I get more into the 3 components of building the Exercise habit:

Published by Pvot40

I blog about people who are approaching or living midlife to the fullest.

4 thoughts on “Building the Exercise Habit Part 1: Understanding Habits

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