Over the last several years I have been rather fascinated by habits. How can I create better habits? How can I get rid of those pesky bad habits? But even more so, how often am I actually being ruled by these habits? And it is funny, the more that I pay attention to my personal habits the more that I realize just how much of life revolves around these subconscious procedures. However, in this particular blog post, I want to zoom in on one specific habit that I think carries a little more weight than many of the others: staying active.

Before I get into the post I just wanted to recommend a few great books on this topic just in case you are interested in this sort of thing and want to learn much more than I could offer here.

  • The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
  • Atomic Habits – James Clear
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen R. Covey
    This one is less about habit creation and more about suggesting several kinds of mindsets when it comes to a foundational way of thinking, but I think that it fits here if only tangentially.
  • The Art of Impossible – Steven Kotler
    Again, this one is less about habits and more about the science of “flow” which is the psychological term for “getting in the zone”. I personally believe that this flow state and habits are so intertwined that I had to mention this book here as well.

Why Working Out?

Staying active and working out is one of the most important things you can do for yourself both physically and mentally. This is something that I am sure most everyone has heard at least one time before. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that working out is often one of the best cornerstone habits. Cornerstone habits (also referred to as keystone or foundational habits) are habits that tend to overflow into other areas of our life and create additional habits. 

For example, in the “The Power of Habit” Duhigg talks about several real life examples of people that are in rough places in all areas in their lives and they magically seem to turn everything around for the better. Usually this improvement manifests itself in many aspects including physical fitness, career/job life, personal relationships and overall happiness. Oftentimes these people attribute their successful life shift to one keystone habit that helped to get the ball rolling for them and create momentum; because it is easier for us to change when we feel that we are already making progress. And many mentioned that their particular keystone habit was some form of workout.

I have seen this anecdotally with myself as well. Most of my life I have stayed pretty active between sports and now CrossFit. But there were times, especially while I was in college when I thought that I was too busy to workout. I was doing good things by dedicating a lot of time to studying and doing school work, but eventually once time caught up with me, workouts were one of the first things that kicked the curb for me. In my head it seemed logical that I could pause my current workout schedule to focus on school and then promptly resume my schedule when school lightened up. But what actually happened every time I would do this is that I would end up slowly spiraling out of control. First I would start to become more irritable because I was missing my daily workout release. Then my sleep would become more erratic, many times I would stay up for 30-40 hours at a time. After running on fumes I would lose focus easier and need caffeine in order to stay awake. Before I knew it, I was more stressed than before and resorting to an unhealthy diet. On top of all that, the so-called extra time I created by removing workouts seemed not to do me any good and so now I found myself needed more dedicated time to hit the books.

Each time I did this, the cycle lasted for about 1-2 weeks before I could get my brain together and figure out a way to break the cycle. That way for me was to prioritize my workouts: completing at least 1 hour of exercise 5 times a week. This seems counterintuitive, but like clockwork, once the workouts became more consistent, so did all the other areas of my life and I found myself with ample time for school, exercise, family and work.

Habit Breakdown (…bear with me, this is important!)

Now that I have explained why I believe staying active is so beneficial, I hope to give you some tips on how you can start and make this life-changing activity a daily habit. But before I do, I have to go off on one more tangent to explain how to think about habits in general.

We can think of habits as consisting of 3 main parts: the trigger, the routine, and the reward. 

First comes the trigger. This refers to something that initiates the habit. The trigger is usually some bit of information that comes in through 1 of our 5 senses. For instance, the sound of our alarm going off in the morning might trigger us and push us right into our morning routine. Or the smell of our favorite restaurant might trigger us and before we know it our bodies are moving on their own and driving to that restaurant for a bite to eat. Like dominoes, once the habit is triggered it becomes automatic and hard to stop. Sometimes this is good, like when your foot automatically goes for the brake pedal at the sight of a stop sign. But other times this is not so good, like when you go for your phone first thing in the morning and end up spending more time than you should in bed on social media. Good or bad, these triggers appear to have vast power over us.

After the trigger, comes the routine. This is what many people think of when they hear the word “habit”. The routine can be solely mental, but is often a kinesthetic motion that you re-enact to the point where it becomes autonomous. Some routines are shorter like the brake pedal example above, but other routines can be larger. Or perhaps maybe they appear larger but are in fact many smaller habits linked together to form a sort of habit train. The important thing to know is that routines are that muscle memory that you feel when your body just does something on its own. The only way your mind and body get to that point is by repetition, and sometimes conscious practice. Because the more times that you repeat the routine, the more neurologically ingrained it becomes. Which brings us to our final point on why we tend to repeat these routines: the reward.

The reward is what keeps us coming back and repeating the habit. It serves as an incentive for our body to become good at whatever routine we are practicing. But it is important to note that this “reward” doesn’t have to be physical. It might be that if you are addicted to social media it is because you get triggered by some stimulus, go through the routine of checking each platform, and then your brain releases dopamine to give you that minor mental high–that is your reward. And so, unfortunately that little high also becomes a trigger for your addiction and now you spend hours watching video after video on YouTube (this is me lol).

Next we will talk about how this knowledge can help us in our journey to become and stay healthy and fit.

How to Start Working Out and Stay Consistent

Forming a New Habit

Now how does this information help when starting or continuing your quest for fitness? The answer is in the awareness that it brings. The goal is to make daily exercise a habit–a lifestyle for us. Something so automatic that it is as easy as brushing our teeth in the morning.

If you do not currently workout semi-regularly then step one is to create this habit. Like we saw before this will require creating 3 parts: the trigger, routine, and reward. When creating a new habit it is usually good to identify a trigger that is already contained within your daily life. For example, many people have success with starting to workout right in the morning. In this way you can simply add your workout habit to the end of your morning routine. At first this must be a conscious effort but after a while, your reward will have your body wanting to workout, in fact it will be craving exercise.

To make this effort easier at the beginning there are a few things that we can do. First, make sure that you consciously attach the trigger to whatever action you want to start your routine; and then be sure to tell that to yourself. For example, if I want to start working out in the mornings, I might say something like, “After I finish brushing my teeth in the morning I will go to the gym”. This is great because it gives your body a plan for what happens next, rather than letting your body go into default mode and enacting other habits. We can make this saying even more powerful by being more specific like, “After I brush my teeth in the morning I will grab my gym clothes and put them in my gym bag, and then walk down the stairs, grab my keys and then drive to the gym”. This overly specific phrase seems ridiculous on the surface but try it out, I promise you it is more powerful than you think. By being more detailed it takes the ambiguity out of our motions and leaves less room for error and for our body to get side tracked. In the first phrase there is a lot that could happen between me brushing my teeth and getting to the gym. I might walk by my phone or video game console and decide that I’d rather play games than head to the gym. But with the second phrase that seems less likely because I already have a gameplan.

Next, we need to talk about the actual routine, in this case working out. Generally, when creating a new habit, the routine will feel or at least appear to look like work. If it was super fun or not intimidating, we would probably already be doing it. And as humans we are resistant to change, whether it be because of fear, stubbornness, or something else. But we can account for this. We want to reduce that urge to resist as much as we can, and the way that we do this is by simplifying the routine and/or reducing the frequency and volume that we enact the routine. We want to minimize the friction it takes to get our bodies moving and acting on this autonomously.

The way to do this is by starting with small incremental changes. If you have never worked out in your life it might be a good idea to start with a smaller habit and then scale it up as you feel comfortable. Set a goal of working out 2 times a week for only 20 mins. Then after that it becomes easier, make it 3 times a week. And then later increase the workout time to 30 mins, and then 45 mins, and so on. The best analogy that I have heard is to imagine you want to create a better habit to floss more often. Start by flossing every day in the morning (daisy chaining it to a previous habit). But each day you floss only floss 1 tooth at the beginning. Then increase to 2 teeth. This seems silly, but flossing 1 tooth only takes a few seconds while flossing your whole mouth will take several minutes. Which are you more likely to decline when you are tired and in a rush in the morning? We want to apply this same philosophy to our exercise habit.

Lastly, let’s talk about the reward. We have a couple of options on how to reward ourselves after we complete our workout. The first would be to reward ourselves with something physical or a fun activity. A lot of people lean towards treating themselves to a sugary sweet, but I advise against this because then you will only ever want to workout if you know it includes a piece of cake afterwards, and then we have ourselves 1 semi good habit along with 1 bad habit and so it is not worth it. But you could also reward yourself with an activity. For instance, “After I workout, I will allow myself to play video games for an hour”, or read a book, or watch Netflix, or whatever it is that you want. This solution is not bad but the only issue is that then it becomes a question of whether or not you have time to do both that day. Do I have time to workout for an hour and play video games for an hour? If I only have an hour of free time then the answer to that question is no and so my body will pick the easy way out and choose not to workout because there is no reward.

My solution to this problem is to find an intrinsic reward. By working out I find that I feel good about myself and more confident. I like the way that my body looks as well as how it feels afterwards, and so that joyfulness is my reward. It also helps dramatically if you find a form of exercise that is more easily enjoyable. Rather than going to the gym by myself, I like to attend CrossFit group classes because I get to see and spend time with my friends and it makes even the toughest workouts feel easier to overcome (I highly recommend everyone try at least 1 CrossFit class for this reason). And so by using this intrinsic reward, I am no longer limited by needing 2 hours a day to complete my workout habit.

Replacing an Old Habit

The final thing I want to talk about is how to replace an older bad habit with something new, like working out. In order to do this there is one key strategy. First note that it is quite difficult to remove triggers for bad habits. This is because they may be unavoidable triggers that we see on a daily basis (I will give an example in just a second). So instead of removing the trigger to this bad habit we will simply replace the routine with our new routine of working out. The best way for me to explain this is by telling a story of how I personally did this.

Normally, I workout in the afternoons. Currently and in the past this has been after school or work. Most of the time this is a great solution for me, but as I mentioned previously, sometimes school would become too much and I would get out of a rhythm. When this happened I would find that upon returning home from school I would walk into my house and before I could do anything, I would see the couch and my body would feel tired and jump on to enjoy a “short” nap.

For the entire car ride home, I would have genuine intentions of working out. But when I entered the house the sight of the couch would trigger my habit and I would begin taking a nap. To stop doing this I had to replace the routine of this habit: napping on the couch, with my new routine: working out. As always it is good to prepare your brain for this in advance so that it is not caught off guard, so I would tell myself, “When I see the couch, I will not sit down or even walk towards it, but instead head upstairs to pack my gym back and then exit the garage door (away from the couch) in order to drive to the gym”. This plan of action is not easy but it becomes easier the more times you do it. And so over time as long as I succeed more often than I fail, slowly my bad habit will wither away and a new tree will grow in its spot.

The End?

When it comes to habits there is never an end. We are constantly changing our daily routines, usually at such an incremental pace that it is hard to notice. The key to working out consistently over time is to become aware of these daily incremental changes and then using what we know now to shift course when it comes to habit creation and replacement. Using these strategies is how I have been able to better my fitness lifestyle and I hope that they can help you as well!

– Coach Jake

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