Making Exercise Habits Stick

Making Exercise Habits Stick

Welcome to the first real week of 2021!

As usual, most fitness and weight loss companies are ramping up their “new year, new you” marketing to sell their exercise programs.

But today, I want to share with you concrete tips for making any workout plan really work for you. Because here’s the secret…

Pretty much every fitness plan works.


Whether you do a Prevention magazine “walk off the pounds” type program or a CrossFit high-intensity powerlifting plan, the key is making exercise habits stick – not finding the perfect program.

The key to effectively sticking with an exercise program is to do it often enough that it becomes part of your mental blueprint for the day.

Unfortunately, this can take a long time – one-liners about it taking 21 days to make a habit really undersell this. Most habit researchers agree that it takes 2-3 months for a routine to become firmly ingrained into your daily flow (this is why my programs are always 3+ months). Check out this article by Atomic Habits author James Clear to learn more.

So what do you do until something actually becomes a habit?

The short answer is that most people give up. It makes sense, right? We tend to take the path of least resistance (especially when we’re stressed or busy). The problem is, until a behavior becomes a habit, it is the path of more resistance, not less. Exercise, especially, takes concentrated time and effort to accomplish until it becomes a natural routine.

Making Exercise Habits Stick

With some of my clients, I like to use the image of a metal playground slide. Imagine that you’re sitting at the top. Once you push off, it’s extremely easy to effortlessly whoosh downward with gravity and the smoothness of the metal.

But what if, at the top of the slide, you could choose a side of the slide that was smooth, easy metal – or a side that was pebbled and rough? Or a side that had wooden planks blocking it? Or a part of the slide that actually went upwards, that you had to continue to climb to get to the end?

We would pick the easy, smooth one, right? Or maybe we would pick the pebbled one if we thought it was a better slide, but as soon as we got uncomfortable, we would punt and shift back over the easy, smooth side?

This is exactly what happens with exercise habits. Without realizing it, we set up exercise habits that are essentially the slide with pebbled bits sticking out of it, that are uncomfortable and pokey and difficult. At the time when we most need something to be easy so we’ll keep doing it over and over again to make it a habit, we find that we are encountering the most obstacles to continuing.

So what’s the solution?

The key to sticking with healthy behaviors until they become habits is to intelligently remove friction from the routine. Once a habit has beefed up a little, it can handle reasonable friction. But at the beginning, we want to make it as easy as possible to follow through.

Essentially, you want to plan your exercise habits not for the most motivated version of yourself, but the laziest version of yourself!

My Example of Removing Friction

My personal example of removing friction from my exercise habits happened this winter after I had Gabriella. My whole world had changed – not just because of having Gabriella, but also because of the global pandemic. I still wasn’t comfortable with going to my local gym where – prior to the pandemic – Michael and I had gone every early weekday morning for cardio and strength training.

Even with a treadmill and weights at home, I found that I was having difficulty getting my butt in gear in the morning, and I was having trouble making exercise habits stick. I was waking up early enough, I wasn’t too groggy, I felt fine – but I just couldn’t connect the dots consistently and actually exercise in the morning for awhile.

I did a little detective work in my own morning routine, and realized that my exercise clothes were the bit of friction keeping me stuck.

It was that simple. Because Gabriella’s nursery shares a wall with our bedroom, and my chest of drawers is very close to that wall, I had been unconsciously procrastinating getting dressed in my workout gear because I didn’t want to bumble and rattle around in the dark, waking up Gabriella and Michael. Did I mention that the pulls on the drawers are the metal swinging ones that make tons of noise??

That one issue – my workout clothes being jumbled in my noisy drawer in the dark right next to the nursery – was like a big wooden plank sticking right into my path on the slide.

As soon as I realized, I pretty much emptied the entire contents of my workout drawer – leggings, shirts, sports bras, shoes, socks, everything – into a shelf in our laundry room. Now, as soon as I wake up in the morning and warm up the Nespresso machine, I pop into the laundry room and change with the light on and can immediately get on the treadmill. Later in the morning, once everyone’s up, I can put my pajamas away.

While it hasn’t fixed every single motivation problem I have, my workout clothes were a huge point of friction that – once smoothed out – made the whole journey much easier. My. morning exercise habit went from “maybe I’ll get it in” to nearly daily.

In today’s blog post, we’re going to discuss common friction sticking points that make exercise goals difficult to maintain, and explore solutions for smoothing them out, so that you can be more active, more healthy, and more fit!

Common Friction Sticking Points

No Plan for Your Workout

This is a big one. Having no plan for exercise means that you probably won’t exercise. Even if you set the time aside, if you do not have a specific cardio activity to do or a specific video or weightlifting scheme to follow, making exercise habits stick is really hard to do. You may end up messing around a little with weights or the other equipment you have, but that’s all that happens – a little messing around. It’s ultimately unrewarding.

I highly recommend getting a piece of cardio equipment like a treadmill or a good indoor bike or rowing machine so that you do have one “mindless” exercise option for those times when you just don’t have the mental bandwidth to plan something. Remember, mental energy is friction, too.

But I additionally recommend buying into a structured program so that you get workouts delivered to you that you can follow along with. Strength training is an extremely important part of a healthy exercise plan, but most people feel confused and directionless with weights or bodyweight training. Whether you do my 3-month beginner’s program or something free like Fitness Blender on YouTube, it’s so incredibly helpful to have direction and structure.

It reduces mental friction to simply be told what to do and follow instructions.

No Workout Clothes

I already went through this with my story, but there are other issues that I see clients – especially women – run into with exercise gear.

You really need:

  • One pair of activity-appropriate shoes (flatter “training” shoes for weightlifting, and running shoes if you are running, for example)
  • Two or three excellent sports bras that fit you well (my favorite brand is Brooks)
  • Two or three pairs of activity-appropriate leggings (nice compression for higher-intensity activities)

On top of these items, even the rattiest t-shirt is fine.

The essential pieces need to be clean and in a place that’s easy to transition from pajamas (in the morning) or work clothes (in the evening). Picture sliding right from bed into your trousers, like Wallace here.

No Equipment, Or Disorganized / Hard to Reach / Out of the Way

Especially if you’re working out at home, make sure your weights, mats, and iPad (or whatever you use to work out) are easy to set up quickly and in an intuitive place. If something is hard to reach or hard to carry, all you’re doing is sticking more obstacles in your way.

For me, this means that I work out upstairs in the morning, instead of downstairs in my studio/office. As silly as it sounds, it’s enough of a pain to walk downstairs, open up my studio, turn on the heater, etc., that I would probably end up skipping strength training more often than not if I had to do it every time. In the early mornings, the upstairs is simply more comfortable and inviting. So I leave sets of weights and mats upstairs to use, so I don’t have to go downstairs to get them or use them.

If you have cardio equipment, put it somewhere where it’s likely that you’ll use it frequently. My treadmill is in my laundry room right next to the kitchen, which means that I can hop on it while I’m waiting for something to finish cooking in the evening.

This also applies to tech equipment like having a phone, iPad, or headphones charged and ready. Maybe you need an extension cord, for example.

This is extremely personal to how your home space is set up, what time of day you exercise, and how you best “get in the zone.”

Distractions (aka “Quicksand”)

I think you will immediately be able to come up with examples for yourself as you read this.

What are the small things that get you “stuck” like quicksand just as you’re about to set your exercise habit into motion?

For me, it’s 100% my phone. Especially if I sit down with my phone, even for a second, before I start exercising, I get stuck in quicksand for a little while.

Another quicksand example for me is if I don’t change into exercise clothes right away in the morning. If I am in my workout gear, it’s fine if I sit down with coffee for a minute before I work out. But if I’m still in pajamas, it’s pretty likely that if I sit down with coffee I’m going to get stuck on that couch indefinitely.

For some of my clients, it’s turning on the news. For other clients, it’s taking 30 minutes to “relax” after work.

You can probably think of your own examples – what quicksand pits can you recognize for yourself? They’re probably small things, but the sorts of things where you tell yourself, “just five minutes,” and then a half hour vanishes.

Once you think of your own examples, strive to make them rewards after your exercise, instead of preceding your exercise.

Lack of Enjoyment

This is a huge one. Do you enjoy (or at least can neutrally tolerate) the type of exercise you do? If not, you may need to shake things up.

We all go through periods of low motivation. Exercise is tough. It’s usually effortful. It’s not as easy or fun as sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee and a book. But if you consistently find that you dread your workouts and procrastinate doing them, then you need to sweeten the deal for yourself so that you can build your own motivation.

The first way to do this is to address the type of exercise. Is there an alternative form of exercise that you would enjoy more, which would still get the job done? For example, would a dance cardio workout video be more fun for you than 30 minutes on the rowing machine? Then do that!

The second way to do this is with distraction. If you’re bored on the treadmill, could you pipe in an interesting podcast, watch Netflix, or read a book on your Kindle? I just had a client fix her motivation last week with this trick. Try to pick something that’s a guilty pleasure that you don’t normally have time to indulge in.

The third way to do this is to add a social element to your exercise. Can you have an accountability buddy that you can exercise with either in person or over video?

Using these tips allows you to “grease” the slide – if there were bumps, now they’re smoother and you can glide over them.

By the way, many of these same tips can work for removing friction from your healthy eating habits, as well. I hope your main takeaway is this: plan your strategies for the laziest version of yourself, not the most motivated version of yourself!

What are the ways that you can remove friction from your daily exercise goals? Let me know in the comments!