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how to make exercise a habit

Ask the Experts: How Do You Make Exercise a Habit?

Sometimes, the struggle genuinely is real. 

Do you often promise yourself you’ll get started with your new workout tomorrow? Yet when tomorrow becomes today, it never seems to happen? 

Learning how to make exercise a habit is an essential part of getting and staying fit. Without it, you’ll always struggle to find the time (or is that another way of saying the motivation)?

So, how exactly do we go about forming a habit – be it for a workout or in your work life? We decided to ask the experts.

Dr. Amanda Rebar is a senior lecturer at Central Queensland University, Australia, and director of the Motivation of Health Behaviours (MoHB) Lab. Her research focuses on the psychology of health behavior change and the impact of physical activity on mental health and wellbeing. 

Heikki Huovinen is a Senior Performance Coach at Hintsa Performance. He has two masters degrees – one in physical health and the other in psychology – and spent many years coaching Formula 1 drivers before moving into the corporate sector.

Discover their insights into creating positive routines and how to make exercise a habit.

Why do some people struggle to find motivation for exercise despite the immediate mood-boosting benefits?

Dr. Amanda Rebar: Finding motivation to exercise is easy – the first time. The problem usually comes when we need to find motivation to do something over and over again. 

If you have to talk yourself into doing exercise each day, it’s probably not going to work all the time.

Although there are immediate benefits to exercise, such as mood boosts, it’s through long-term engagement in regular activity that many of these benefits are achieved. This means the motivation relies on a consistent choice of exercise over other, potentially more tempting, options (e.g., watching Netflix). If you have to talk yourself into doing exercise each day, it’s probably not going to work all the time (such as when motivation wanes or other things take priority).

Habit can make it easier to engage in exercise over time, not because it makes the actual activity more effortless, but it makes the decision-making process more straightforward. That is, instead of having to talk yourself into exercising, you may ‘just do it’ out of habit.

Can we train our minds to form habits, such as regular exercise?

how to make exercise a habit

Heikki Huovinen: Studies have shown that repeatedly performing something new for twenty days in a row will help you form a habit (i.e., you do it without thinking or needing to find the motivation).

Motivation can be automatic (emotion) or reflective (beliefs, intentions).

However, to form that habit, you first need to consider three key areas. Known as the COM-B Model of Behaviour, they help to identify what needs to change for a habit to form.

1) Capability: for example, if you want to start running, is this something you can immediately start doing? Do you need to start with another type of exercise first to build up to it? Or able you able to jump straight in and give it a try?

2) Opportunity: do you have the right running shoes, for example? Is this something you can acquire?

3) Motivation: this can be automatic (emotion) or reflective (beliefs, intentions). For example, do you feel or believe this new habit is beneficial for you?


Dr. Amanda Rebar:  If you’re looking for a specific amount of times/days you need to exercise to develop a habit, I’m not going to give it to you. It varies person-to-person and circumstance-to-circumstance. 

However, typically the achievement-driven mindset of a count-down of days isn’t helpful for habit formation. Instead, exercisers need to find something that works for them and fits within their daily lives.

What can we learn from forming ‘good’ habits that can help us lose/break ‘bad’ ones?

Heikki Huovinen: Often, through creating new positive habits, we will replace negative ones. For example, when you start exercising regularly, you will probably find you need to go to bed earlier and eat better to support this new habit, replacing any previous habits around poor sleep or diet.

Often bad habits are masking the absence of something we need.

However, we also need to be aware that often bad habits are masking the absence of something we need. For example, we often use social media to stay in touch and feel connected with others. Yet, the dopamine hit that we experience from this isn’t the same as having conversations, either in person or via video call. 

So, often when we find ourselves addicted to our phones, it’s because we are trying to make up for this lack of real connection in our lives. So, in this example, we must ask ourselves what we need from our friendships and relationships that we aren’t getting, and how do we make these needs a part of our lives so that we don’t try and replace them with social media instead.

How important is goal setting? Does it encourage us to maintain our practice, hinder it, or have little impact?

Set a goal with a ‘when/else’ statement that sets out the context or cue that triggers your behavioral response

Dr. Amanda Rebar:  There is some mixed evidence about the impact of goal setting on habit formation. The trick is that when you set goals, you should be less focused on what the achievement is and more about goals that allow for your mind to make a learned cue-response pairing.

That is, set a goal with a ‘when/else’ statement that sets out the context or cue that triggers your behavioral response. For example, “When I get home from work, I will take the dog for a walk,” “After I brush my teeth, I will go through my yoga routine.”


Heikki Huovinen: It all comes down to rest and recovery. When we don’t have an adequate sleep, we will struggle to make good choices and feel motivated. 

What are some ways we can stay on track when life gets in the way?

A good habit will be able to trigger you regardless of where you are.

Dr. Amanda Rebar: The good news is that it is rare that missing a few exercise sessions will largely impact your habit for exercise. Behavioural habits are different from addictive substance use in that there is less risk from relapse.

However, a good habit will be able to trigger you regardless of where you are. If you’re trying to make exercise a habit, pick a ‘cue’ that occurs no matter where you are or what else is going on, such as time of day or place in a routine.

What are some healthy everyday habits you’ve observed in elite-level athletes, which you can tell have contributed towards their achievements?

Creating an environment where you can allow your brain to relax and be ready to sleep is important.

Heikki Huovinen: Again, sleep is the most important one. I see younger athletes struggle with this because their body clocks are geared towards having later nights, so finding a way to help switch off earlier in the evening is essential. After all, midnight draws its name from being the middle of the night. People used to go to bed around 9pm and woke up at 5/6am, meaning that midnight fell around the middle of their slumber.

Creating an environment where you can allow your brain to relax and be ready to sleep is important. By not exposing ourselves to bright lights from our phones and devices an hour or two before we want to sleep, we send our brains the signal that it is time to sleep.


Dr. Amanda Rebar:  Breaking a habit is hard. Rather than break it – replace it. It’s much easier to train your mind to associate a new behaviour with the triggering cue rather than just trying to get rid of it.

Think of what’s rewarding about the bad habit you want to break (e.g., what do you get out of it) and then find a more healthy/beneficial way to get that reward. It won’t work if you try to change your habit with a new behaviour that isn’t satisfying. 

If you liked this post, don’t forget to share so that others can find it, too.

Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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