Breaking the Zero Exercise Habit
Are you one of the many people who struggles to find the time and energy to break the habit of zero exercise? If so, you’re not alone! Exercise is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, but motivating yourself to get moving can be difficult. Many find the idea of a regular exercise habit appealing but also challenging and even discouraging.
A busy schedule or poor health can represent significant obstacles, but for most, the biggest barrier is actually the mental approach. They lack self-confidence, motivation or discipline. But whatever your age or fitness level, even if you have never exercised a day in your life, you can take steps to not only exercise and establish an exercise habit, but make it an instinctive and enjoyable part of your life. And that is to say nothing of the physical, mental and social benefits that improved health will bring.
As a personal trainer and nutritionist with 20 years’ experience, I’ve worked with numerous individuals who have faced unique challenges on their fitness journeys. The reasons range from a lack of interest in exercise to more profound issues such as low self-esteem, fear of failure, or time constraints. Regardless of the reason, the common denominator in these cases, and likely in your case, is the mind. It’s often a mental struggle, rather than a physical one, that is preventing you from getting started.
Weight issues are a common struggle for many people, often rooted in poor diet and inactivity. I recall working with two clients who were each advised to lose more than 100 pounds to maintain good health. To assist them in identifying obstacles, I posed the following questions:
- What is your objective? How important is it to you?
- Will you persist to the end of this lifestyle journey?
With objectives in mind, both participated in circuit-based exercises tailored to their fitness levels and consumed a diet of whole, nutrient-based foods. Both lost approximately 150 pounds.
Fitness is a mental game that requires a tough attitude and a resilient mindset. However, to achieve lasting success, a competent approach is needed. I use a technique called “habit stacking.” With this approach, you rely not only on willpower but on the benefits of “stacking” your new exercise habit onto an existing habit.
To illustrate, you may have a strong habit of brushing your teeth before bed each night or turning on the coffee machine when you wake up in the morning. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, explains that you can use one of these ingrained habits to your advantage as a basis for a new healthy behavior.
Some examples might be:
- While making my coffee in the morning, I will do a light jog in place.
- While oatmeal is cooking, I will do 10 sets of countertop pushups.
- Before the morning shower gets warm, I will do five high-knees.
- Before eating my lunch, I will do 25 bodyweight squats.
Even though these might feel trivial at first, they help you overcome the mental barrier. Consistency is key to making progress, and these micro-workouts often lead to better results than infrequent gym visits. Incorporating enough of them into your daily routine can add a surprising amount of extra physical activity.
Here are additional ways stack a good habit onto an existing habit:
- After taking off your work boots, put on your workout clothes and head to the gym.
- After supper, do a 15-minute treadmill run, then a 30-minute home strength workout.
Five Fitness Examples
With the powerful tool of habit stacking at your service, you can now approach your situation with more confidence and the knowledge that, step by step, you can not only exercise but build a consistent exercise habit. Following are five common zero-exercise scenarios: Which is most similar to your situation? The good news is that each of these can be changed, step by step, day by day, habit by habit, micro-exercise by micro-exercise.
The time-strapped desk jockey: Are you willing and in good health, but unfamiliar with exercise? Try a low-impact, strengthening and cardio circuit training routine. Choose exercises that are gentle on the joints, such as push-ups, squats, lunges, planks, glute bridges, Russian twists, leg lifts, high knees, step-ups and pistol pushes. Select, for example, three of these exercises. Perform the first exercise for a specific number of repetitions (such as 20 “reps”), then, without resting, immediately move to the second exercise, then the third. Repeat those three exercises three times, then perform three different exercises. Do this for 30 to 45 minutes. Since you aren’t pausing for breaks, your heart rate will likely climb quickly and stay elevated, making circuit training an excellent strength-cardio challenge that you can complete, including changing and showering, in about an hour.
The apartment dweller: Perhaps you see a lack of equipment and a lack of space as preventing you from establishing an exercise habit. However, most of the exercises listed above can be performed in your bedroom or living room! The apartment dweller can also create a new exercise habit using a routine that requires only a set of dumbbells or resistance bands, and an optional exercise mat. I prefer dumbbells, but resistance bands are cheaper, take up even less space, and are portable. Try a 15-minute workout like this one, a 30-minute workout like this one, or another simple workout routine on a website like Fitness Blender. Choose a habit to stack it onto, start at a level you are comfortable with, and begin your new habit!
The road warrior: Perhaps you drive long distances for work or other reasons. You are frequently on the road or in hotel rooms. The approaches above might work for you, and so too might simple bodyweight exercises. No equipment is necessary as you perform sets of push-ups, squats, lunges, jumping jacks, walking or running, or even running in place at a motel room, workout area or other available space.
The person battling illness: Depending on your illness, it may be wise to have a doctor give you clearance and guidance on exercise. But it is almost certain that exercise of some kind is needed to help you battle that illness and improve your overall health. Again, you need to make sure you are taking the right and safe approach, but the illness may be more of a barrier in your mind than it actually is to your body. Even many people who have chronic illnesses can and should build an exercise habit by starting with a combination of short cardio and some functional strength training. Functional fitness not only helps you move easily and injury free, it also builds muscles, burns calories, and helps you stay healthy long term.
The person who is unfit but willing: If your body is out of shape, even badly out of shape, but your mind is willing, you are most of the way there to starting an exercise habit! With just a little more effort, that willing mindset can overcome obstacles such as lack of time, lack of space, lack of equipment, and other barriers and inhibitions. You haven’t started yet, but you are very close to success. Choose a habit to stack your new habit on, and use one of the approaches above or the simplest of beginner workouts. This could literally start as a five-minute walk down the road and a five-minute walk back. You could also choose from a short workout that suits your situation, plus some stretching. It might feel simplistic at first, but once your willing mindset turns that last corner and becomes action in the form of an actual exercise habit, your walks will get longer, your workouts will get better, and your body and mind will feel stronger and stronger. The key is to get started.
Even if you have a zero exercise habit and you are facing one or more of these obstacles, you can become a person who exercises regularly. The one thing to focus on is changing your mindset. If you are willing, you can do it. Find an exercise routine that works for you. It does not have to be an impressive physical feat: It can simply be something you enjoy, or something that fits your situation or schedule. Choose a habit to stack this simple exercise habit onto. Set small, achievable goals for yourself, and with a little patience and persistence, you will break the zero exercise habit. As soon as you do, you will have taken the first step on a fitness journey that can make you stronger, healthier and happier.