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How to build a fitness habit

Already faltering on your new year's resolution to get more fit? Here's how to create a habit and stick with it.

This story was published on our How To newsletter, Practical advice for work and life, delivered the way only Quartz can.
  • Manavi Kapur
By Manavi Kapur

Reporter

Published

Hi Quartz members,

Just two short weeks ago, you probably made a solemn vow that this will be the year you do that thing. Every year, my annual resolution used to be to get fitter. And if you’re anything like me, by February, I would have veered off course and resigned myself to the couch.

But about 18 months ago, I worked out for the first time in a long time. Up till that point, fitness was not a habit I had ever been able to sustain. I used to exercise in fits and starts in the past, and whenever I gave up—it almost felt inevitable that I would—I would drown myself in guilt and self-loathing.

For whatever reason, this time when I began exercising I was able to stick to it. I’m still not 100% regular—there are weeks when I barely get one workout in—but it’s a part of my routine in a way that it no longer seems daunting. And on some days, I even look forward to those 45 minutes on the mat.

If you’re thinking about starting a fitness habit, I have some tips for you on how to begin—and how to stick with it.

How to start a fitness regimen

Pick a goal. Do you want stronger muscles, better flexibility, or better general stamina? Fitness can mean so many different things to people, and narrowing down a goal will add an element of focus to your routine. My first goal, when I began working with a fitness coach in June 2020, was to climb two flights of stairs without huffing and puffing.

Note that fitness isn’t the same as losing weight! To be able to do a heavy deadlift or a smooth headstand, you do not need to be a certain weight. Take care of your mind along with your body by following social media accounts that promote body positivity, or that align with your health issues and fitness goals.

Pick your go-to workout. There is absolutely no “one size fits all” when it comes to physical activity, and a lot of what you end up doing during your workout will depend on the current fitness levels of your body and your goals. If you have a knee or back injury, certain exercises like squats may not be for you. You should also enjoy the kind of exercise you choose, because it will help you come back to it more often. If you want to do cardio, it doesn’t have to be running. My warm-up exercises generally include a mad dance on the mat to some favorite Bollywood music to get my heart rate going. Yours could be a gentler, slower routine of Pilates or yoga.

Set up some accountability. I started working with a fitness coach so I had someone to be accountable to, and to have someone gently nudge me to do better. A coach can help you set goals according to your stamina and time, and help you course correct when you feel like you’ve plateaued. I wouldn’t have been able to build a habit without my coach, but this may not be true for everyone, or something everyone can afford. You can fix accountability by roping in a friend, logging in your workouts in a journal or health apps, or rewarding yourself with a little self-care treat when you meet your goals.

Just start. The first day I worked out was June 3, 2020, which fell on a Wednesday. It was just another day, and my modest goal was to take a walk that was at least 5,000 steps.

Know your limits. Don’t start at a level that is intimidating or too difficult for your current fitness level. Instead of lifting too-heavy weights that would leave me sore for days, my new coach told me to lift the amount of weight I could without sacrificing form. At that point, two one-liter Tupperware bottles filled with water were enough weight for me to do shoulder exercises that were adequately challenging. “Don’t lift with your ego,” he told me. I didn’t feel like I was constantly failing, which brought me back to the exercise mat week on week.

Know the limits of working out. An exercise routine is not a magic wand. It will not make you leaner, more lithe, or stronger overnight, and not by itself. Neither can one fitness routine compensate for poor eating or other lifestyle choices. Whenever I indulged in some potato chips or french fries, my coach would remind me that working out was not a means to punish my body for its “bad behavior” of eating junk food. A fitness routine works best when you allow your body to rest and heal, and treat the workout as another way to nourish your body.

How to stick to that routine

Discipline over motivation. Fitness coaches such as American trainers like Adam Wright and Jordan Syatt often tell their clients that they are not going to find motivation to do the workout day after day. Motivation depends on your current mood, work- or pandemic-related stress, a distracting environment, conflict at home. But discipline, on the other hand, is just about getting the task done. It takes a bit of practice, but fix a time, get into your workout clothes, and do the workout at the assigned time, just like you would brush your teeth before going to bed.

Do just one bit. One hack my coach offered me for days I didn’t feel like working out was to just get one set of, say, squats in. In most cases, because I got into my workout clothes and had unfurled a mat, I would end up doing much more than just that one set, even if I didn’t do the entire routine.

Set realistic goals. Just like knowing the limits of your body, you should know the limits of your time. For instance, your work may not allow you enough time to work out six days a week. Or you may not have adequate child care to carve out an hour each day. Start small and adjust your schedule according to your convenience. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of aerobic activity every week, but when you can’t get all those minutes in, even a little is better than nothing.

Make it super easy. If your gym is far, if the mat is in a difficult place to reach, or if your workout takes a lot of thought and preparation, you might end up not doing it. The biggest factor that worked in my favor was the lockdown—I just had to tumble out of bed and onto the exercise mat to get started. On days when my schedule is packed and I know I will work out in the afternoon, I get into my yoga pants and sports bra in the morning to combat any inertia I might feel later.

Be flexible. There is no wrong time in the day to do your exercise routine, except perhaps just after eating a big meal. Any time that fits your schedule is a great time. You also don’t need a ton of equipment, expensive gym wear, or smart devices to get into a basic fitness habit. One piece of clothing I would recommend for people with breasts, though, is a good sports bra, especially if you are going to do some HIIT or cardio.

Get into the mindset. To make a fitness routine a habit, you have to think of it as part of your life; acknowledge that you are now a person who works out, however regularly. Something as small as keeping a fitness journal also helps. I mark my calendar with a green dot on the days I work out and I feel pumped at the end of the month when there are more of those marks than empty spots. A habit is formed when it becomes a part of your lifestyle, like some sort of muscle memory, whenever it happens. And there’s nothing that stops you from re-making that habit if you fall off the wagon a few times.

Keep learning

How to build a new habit (Harvard Business Review)

How to create self-discipline (Wall Street Journal)

The myth of 21 days for habit building (Thrive Global)

Have an endorphin-rich weekend,

—Manavi Kapur, reporter, Quartz India (whose suggested YouTube queue has videos of the right way to do various exercises)

One 🚶 thing

Most fitness apps and devices will suggest that you walk 10,000 steps a day, even if there’s debate over whether that number has any merit or basis in science. But walking just 2,000-3,000 steps over your current average step count will improve your overall heart health. If you decide 10,000 steps is a worthy goal, work your way up to it.

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