Build good exercise habits and feel the positive domino effect

Establishing the right routines in daily life is a very effective way of achieving fitness goals


It’s a dull, dreary Monday evening. I jump out of my car and put on my head torch. There’s a cold chill in the air and the rain has just started. I’m meeting my friend Denis on the steps at 6pm. “The steps” are 450 wooden steps that give access to Wreck Beach in Vancouver, Canada.

In preparation for an Arctic Rowing Expedition last summer, Denis and I trained on these steps every Monday after work. We would spend between 45 minutes and an hour running up and down, usually in rain and often in darkness (hence the head torch). We started with three repetitions of the steps and over time built up to 10.

An enormous amount of research has focused on habits. They are a key component of achieving any goal. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort and will look for ways to turn daily routines into habits as these “habit loops” are a very effective way for the brain to save energy.

Duhigg describes the three stages of a habit loop. The first is a cue: a trigger that prompts our brain to search automatically for a particular habit to use. The second stage is a routine, which is the action we then carry out. This could be something physical – or, indeed something emotional or mental. The third step is the reward: how we feel after the routine. This helps our brains decide whether the habit loop is worth remembering.

So in the context of running up and down the steps at Wreck Beach, our cue was the simple fact that it was Monday evening, the routine was running up and down steps for an hour in the dark. The reward was how good we felt after it was all done.

Consider any goal we want to achieve: our activity and our behaviour will determine whether we achieve the goal. Habits play a significant role in our behaviour, so cultivating the type of habits we want to see can be very effective over time.

There are many factors that will influence whether we exercise regularly. And by exercise, I mean this might be getting back into exercise after some years of inactivity, it could be training at a very intense level or somewhere in between. The purpose of paying attention to them is to give ourselves the best chance of getting the outcome we want. In essence, this is about stacking the odds in our favour and over time removing the need for large amounts of discipline and willpower to exercise.

Be clear about

your motivation Good habits are much easier to solidify when they are supporting something you are genuinely very motivated about.

Make time to plan

Many of us lead very busy lives. If we put a work meeting or a doctor’s appointment in our diary, it happens. Putting “exercise appointments” in the diary is no different. Consider spending 15 minutes on a Sunday evening looking at your week ahead and identifying where you can slot in some exercise time.

Some weeks will obviously be better than others but over time, this little Sunday evening routine can be quite effective in developing a consistent exercise habit.

Start small and build up

If you need to start off small then do, and build on this over time. Use the summer months and longer stretches in the evenings to get out and establish consistent routines. For example, it might be that you start with one or two short exercise sessions a week to get going (say 15 minutes).

You might think it’s not worth exercising for only 15 minutes but that’s not the point: the point is to get a routine going and to build on it.

Exercise with others

Training with other people is a great way to introduce and maintain consistency and accountability. This could be exercising with friends or joining sports clubs, running groups, or doing any form of group activity that helps you exercise regularly.

Consider your keystone

Duhigg outlines the concept of a keystone habit in his book and cites many examples of this in business and health. Simply put, a keystone habit is one that has the ability to change other habits and start a positive chain reaction. So, for example, one of these habits could be eating well and drinking more water. This might have the knock-on effect of giving us more energy, which may help us exercise more regularly. And this in turn may mean we’re in better form at work and at home, which can have further positive knock-on effects. So consider a keystone habit that you believe could have a powerful knock-on effect and focus your energy on shifting that one habit.

There is no single magic process to change habits: we are all individuals and so different techniques work for different people. Habits have the ability to improve performance dramatically, as summed up in the expression: “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

Paul Gleeson is a performance coach. See

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