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I’m far from the first person to say it, but exercise is essential for our overall health. Exercise helps with boosting your mood, relieving stress, increasing energy, improving sleep quality and lowering your risk for diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and many more.
You might be wondering, if exercise is so important to our overall health, then why can it be so dang hard to do?
Trust me, I get it. I live an active lifestyle, working out every day, and yet I still have that mental debate each and every day where I spend several minutes attempting to talk myself out of exercising. Though I never regret working out after the fact, I get that it can be hard to jump the mental hoop.
Over the years, I’ve found some easy tricks to get myself more active daily. And no, going to the gym and doing a hard-core weight workout isn’t required. There are actually sneaky ways to get more exercise day-to-day. Here’s my secret sauce.
1. Set a routine
OK, so this isn’t really a secret. Creating a regular habit of working out would be ideal — duh! It’s creating that habit that’s the tricky part. Here’s where I can help.
One of the most efficient ways to build a habit is through the Cue-Routine-Reward system. MIT researchers discovered the power of the neurological loop at the core of every habit. This “habit loop,” later coined by Charles Duhigg in his 2012 book The Power of Habit, consists of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward.
This system can apply to building any habit, from drinking more water to waking up earlier. But it can certainly apply to creating a workout habit.
For example, say you want to wake up and go to the gym each morning before work. The cue, what triggers the habit, would be the morning and your alarm going off. (Choose a time that works best for you and be consistent. Using multiple cues like time of day and sound can increase your likelihood of performing your routine.)
Your routine, the habit or action you want to create and reinforce, would be getting up and changing into your workout clothes. This can help prevent you from going back to sleep and ensure you hit the gym since you’re already ready. And once you finish the routine (the exercise), you’ll be rewarded. This could appear in the form of endorphins as a bodily reward that can motivate us to do the routine again, or it could even be a tangible reward, like buying yourself new socks after a week of hitting your exercise goals or investing in a new yoga mat after a month of doing yoga each day.
Each person will have a different response to these three elements. It’s important to experiment with what cues and rewards work best for you to develop a consistent routine of training.
2. Start small
A lot of people assume they need to run themselves ragged in the gym to get more fit, but that’s really not true. All you need is about 30 minutes a day.
The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week — that breaks down to a little more than 20 minutes each day. They also recommend strength-training that works the major muscle groups at least two times a week. Thirty minutes is an ideal place to start to fulfill your weekly needs.
You can also start with low-impact activity. A brisk walk in the evening is a more-than-sufficient workout. You can also refer to this guide for the best workouts for beginners.
3. Habit stack
Habit stacking, popularized by James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, is a way to create small yet healthy habits. This term might be new to you, but it’s really straightforward: you “stack” the new behavior (exercising) onto a habit you already have to help you remember to do it. This will cause the combo to become a habit.
If you listen to a podcast every day, try going for a walk or jog while you listen. Waiting for your morning coffee to brew? Try stretching while you wait. Habit stacking can be used in a multitude of ways to make new fitness habits blend into your daily routine.
4. Get active at work
Your work day doesn’t have to be totally sedentary. Rather than using your full lunch hour to eat, take some time to go to the gym, speed walk around the office or run errands.You can also break up the drudgery of the day by taking a walk during one-on-one meetings instead of sitting at a desk or conference room — anything to get up and get moving.
Try to get up every so often to stretch your legs: rather than emailing or Zooming coworkers, get up and talk to them in person if you can; use the stairs rather than the elevator; get up and refill your water every so often.
5. Do exercises you actually like
This is a big one. If you hate exercising, it might be because you aren’t doing workouts you enjoy. Very few people actually enjoy running around in circles for miles. So don’t.
Branch out and try different kinds of workouts until you find one you genuinely enjoy. Biking, surfing, paddle boarding, yoga, hiking, skiing, rock climbing, kayaking and ice skating are all fun activities that get your heart rate up. This will require you to go out of your comfort zone and to be patient as you try things out, but it’ll be worth it when working out no longer feels like a chore.
6. Get active while watching TV
Let’s be honest, running on the treadmill is boring. Riding on a stationary bike is boring. Watching TV is way more fun. That’s why you should combine the two.
There’s no shame in catching up on your favorite show while hitting the gym. Trust me, I’ve been rewatching Game of Thrones on my phone while riding on the stationary bike each day. Not only does the entertainment keep my mind off the burn in my legs, but it pushes me to stay longer. Before downloading Netflix and HBO Max on my phone, I’d stay at the gym for 20 to 30 minutes. Now, I usually stay on the bike or treadmill for 50 to 60 minutes — until the episode is over.
7. Make it social
Exercise doesn’t need to be solitary. In fact, having a workout partner can help keep you motivated and hold you accountable in your routine. If you don’t have one buddy to join you, sign up for a workout class. The structure of working out in a group can push you to work harder while also introducing you to new people.
I recommend exploring the fitness course schedule at your local YMCA or gym, signing up for a boxing, dance or yoga class or purchasing a ClassPass membership, which can grant you access to thousands of health clubs in your city.
For more ways to improve your everyday health, here’s 12 household items that double as gym equipment and daily habits to boost your mental health.