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Fitness: Making It a Habit

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It's one thing to start an exercise or activity program. It's quite another to turn it into a habit so that you're staying active week in and week out. If you're having problems staying with your plan, don't worry. You're not alone.

You'll be glad to hear there are plenty of tips and tricks you can use to get yourself back on track and stay there.

If you haven't started a plan yet to get more active, it may be helpful to read:

Click here to view an Actionset.Fitness: Adding More Activity to Your Life.

Many of the benefits of being active, like having more energy and just feeling better, happen soon after you become more active. But some of the most important health benefits come with being active over time.

  • Your reason for wanting to stay active is very important. It won't work if you're doing it because someone else—your spouse, your children, your doctor—wants you to. You have to want it.
  • If you started a program to get more active but don't feel like you're making any progress, it may be time to update your goals.
  • If you started a program to get more active but are having trouble keeping it going, it may help to figure out what's getting in your way. Then you can figure out how to work around those barriers.
  • Keep at it, even if you slip up along the way. It can take months of repetition to form a habit, so every day is a step in the right direction.

It can be frustrating to start a new habit of activity or exercise and then have to stop because something gets in the way—illness, travel, too many other things to do, or just having a bad day. Your goal is to get back in the habit and find a way to make it a routine part of your life.

If that sounds impossible, think about a simple habit like brushing your teeth. When you were small, maybe you had trouble remembering to brush your teeth every day. Now you probably brush your teeth without thinking much about it. And even if you miss a day, you always go back to brushing your teeth the day after. It can be that way with activity or exercise when you make it a habit.

Remember that you can't create a habit overnight. Keep at it, even if you slip up along the way. It can take months of repetition to form a habit, so every day is a step in the right direction.

Here are three important steps:

  1. Have your own reasons for wanting to stay active.
  2. Set goals. Include long-term goals as well as short-term goals that you can measure easily.
  3. Think about what might get in your way, and prepare for slip-ups.

Test Your Knowledge

To stay physically active, you need to turn your activity into a habit.


Your reasons for wanting to stay active are really important. Knowing your reasons may help you keep going. What makes you want to stay active?

  • You want to stay healthy.
  • You enjoy being active and how it makes you feel.
  • You want to control your weight.
  • You want to set a good example for your family.
  • Your doctor told you that it's important for your health.
  • You have another reason for wanting to do this.

It's not always easy to make activity a regular part of your life. But taking the time now to really think about what motivates or inspires you will help you stay with it.

Tips for staying motivated

  • Take 15 minutes, sit down with a pencil and paper, and write down all the reasons you can think of for wanting to stay active. It may help to see them written down. Hang the list up in your kitchen, bathroom, or maybe at work—someplace where you will see it every day.
  • Think back to when you first started to become more active. Did you notice a difference in the way you felt? Did anyone else notice a difference? Write down any positive responses you got and hang them up too.
  • Put up a photo or a quote that inspires you. It can be something that you find in a book or online. Or maybe it's a snapshot of you and your family playing sports or doing some other activity together.

Test Your Knowledge

It's harder to stay active when you're not clear about why you want to do it.


Update your goals

When you first started increasing your activity, you probably had one or more big goals in mind, like taking a summer hike with your family, walking 30 minutes every day, or lowering your blood pressure. These are long-term goals.

Are those goals the same today, or do you need to change them?

  • Are you having trouble meeting those long-term goals? You may need to come up with new short-term goals to help you get there. Short-term goals are things you want to do tomorrow and the day after.
  • Did you try to take on too much too fast? That's a reason why some people have trouble making activity a habit. Remember to make your short-term goals small steps. For example, if you want to build up to walking 30 minutes every day, start by walking just 10 minutes—or even 5 minutes—a day, a few days a week. After a week, add 1 or 2 minutes every day, or add another day to your schedule.
  • Did you meet your long-term goal and then stop? Good for you for meeting your goal! But now you need a new long-term goal to help you stay active. Even people who have been active for years set new goals to help themselves stay motivated.

Get past those slip-ups

Everyone has slip-ups. But there's a difference between slipping up and giving up. Not exercising for a month after you've been exercising for 6 months is a slip-up. It doesn't mean you're a failure.

When you slip up, don't get mad at yourself or feel guilty. Think of it as a learning experience. Figure out what happened. Why did you stop? Think of ways to get yourself going again. Learn from your slip-ups so that you can keep on toward your goal of staying active.

Here are some common reasons for slip-ups, and some ideas for dealing with them:

  • It seems like I never have time.
    • If you don't have time for your usual half-hour walk, have a back-up plan to take two 15-minute walks or three 10-minute walks during the day.
    • When you don't have time to go to the gym, have a back-up plan to exercise at home or at work instead.
    • Think of ways to manage your time better. Ask your family for help with fitting in some time for exercise.
    • Tell yourself that you are the type of person who makes time for your own health, including physical activity.
    • Look at other people who are active and are about as busy as you. Talk with them about how they fit in physical activity.
    • Use a step counter, or pedometer, to remind you to be more active as you go about your daily routine.
  • It's often too hot, too cold, too windy, or too wet for outdoor activities.
    • Try a variety of indoor and outdoor activities so that you're ready when the weather turns bad.
    • Have a back-up plan to exercise indoors with home equipment or DVDs. Or walk inside a shopping mall or at a gym.
    • Take a class like aerobics or yoga at a gym or community center. They're usually held indoors.
  • Going to the gym costs too much.
    • Walking is an activity everyone can do without spending money.
    • Exercise at home with inexpensive items such as a jump rope, elastic tubing, or a yoga mat. You can use items you already have, such as milk jugs filled with water as weights for arm exercises.
    • Take an exercise class at a community center. These classes usually don't cost much.
  • I'm too tired most of the time.
    • Try to get more rest.
    • When you don't have the energy for a half-hour walk, spread 3 shorter 10-minute walks throughout your day. You'll soon regain the energy to walk longer.
    • Maybe stress is making you tired. Think of ways to take stress out of your life. And remember that regular physical activity is one of the best ways to relieve stress. For more information, see the topic Stress Management.
  • It's too boring.
    • Make your exercise routine more interesting by adding some entertainment. Watch a movie while you exercise at home. Or listen to a podcast while you go for a walk or a run.
    • Exercise with a partner. Play outdoor games with your family. Walk the dog.
    • Try something new—a dance class, exercise class, or gardening.
  • It hurts to exercise because of an injury or arthritis.
    • If you're having pain when you exercise, try a different activity, such as bicycling or water activities.
    • Use chair exercise DVDs that help you stay active while sitting down.
    • It may hurt less if you spread your activity throughout your day.
    • Tell your doctor that pain or discomfort is keeping you from staying active.
    • Talk to a fitness expert who is trained to help you change your exercise so you can avoid pain.

Test Your Knowledge

Feeling guilty is the right response when you let your physical activity habits slip.


There's something wrong if you've tried to be physically active for 4 weeks and you still don't feel like it's become a habit.


If you would like more information on staying active, the following resources are available:


America on the Move: Steps to a Healthier Life
Phone: 1-800-807-0077
Web Address:

America On the Move offers free, personalized online resources, interactive tools, community support, and events. This program helps you build eating and activity habits that positively affect your weight and health. Nutrition and Fitness
P.O. Box 1133
Washington, DC 20013-1133
Phone: 1-800-336-4797
(301) 565-4167
Email: [email protected]
Web Address: provides information on physical activity, diet, disease prevention, and making healthy choices.

Shape Up America!
P.O. Box 15009 Native Dancer Road
North Potomac, MD 20878
Phone: (240) 715-3900
Email: [email protected]
Web Address:

Shape Up America! is a national coalition of industry and medical experts in nutrition and fitness. Its goals are to make Americans more aware of the importance of maintaining a healthy weight and to provide information about how to lose weight and stay fit. The organization has published several booklets on weight loss and diet, which can be ordered from the Web site.

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ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerHeather Chambliss, PhD - Exercise Science
Last RevisedJuly 17, 2012

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