We know we should, we say we want to but still--we just can't find the time or the motivation or discipline. Whatever. Writer Leo Babauta has gone from an overweight, out of shape smoker to a marathon running health advocate. Here are his 25 tips for making exercise a habit.
1. Start slow. The biggest mistake that people make when starting an exercise plan is starting too fast or too hard. Trust me, I've done it many times. I've learned to take it easy, start as small as possible, and worry about endurance or intensity later. The key in the beginning is to make it enjoyable and accomplishable. That's probably not a word, but it should be. And it is now.
2. Warm up. If you're going to do any kind of exercise, don't do it with your muscles cold. Gradually get your heart pumping and blood flowing. You're less likely to injure yourself, and your workout will be more enjoyable
3. Increase gradually. After getting used to a certain level of exercise, you'll want to increase it. Don't just run two miles or walk 20 minutes three times a week for a year. Your body adjusts to the stress you're giving it, so you need to increase the level once you've adjusted. But do it gradually, and only every two weeks or so.
4. Schedule workouts. Make appointments with yourself to workout, at a specific time and place, just as you would with any other appointment. And make it the most important appointment on your calendar - more important than a doctor's visit or even the manicurist.
5. Make it a habit. If you can do exercise at the same time, every single day for a month, you are more likely to make it a habit. Consistency makes habits more ingrained. Once it's a habit (and start easy in the beginning!), then you can step up the intensity a bit.
6. Forget about weight loss. Yeah, many of us would like to lose some weight. But if you're motivated solely by weight loss, exercise will be a tough proposition. The reason is that you might not lose weight right away. Oh, it'll come, if you can keep it up over time, but in the beginning you might be disappointed (especially if you haven't changed your eating habits). Just get into the habit of exercise, and worry about the weight later. First things first.
7. Forget the gym. The gym can be convenient, but it can also be intimidating for beginners, and confusing if you don't know how to use the equipment. Sure, you can get a trainer to teach you, but if the cost or the confusion stops you from exercising ... well, skip the gym and do it at home or at the park or somewhere less intimidating. You can do pushups and crunches and dumb bell exercises at home very easily, workout to a DVD, or go walking or jogging in your neighborhood. Cheap and simple is my motto.
8. Reward yourself. Self-explanatory, but rewards are best if they are frequent in the beginning. Be self-indulgent!
9. Do a 30-day Challenge. Challenge yourself, and see if you can rise to the occasion. Do it with a group or your significant other. Put in rewards. Tell everyone you're doing it. Motivate the hell out of yourself.
10. Write it down. On your Facebook page, in your blog, on Twitter, in emails or in your Journal. There's nothing more motivating than positive public pressure. Step it up by making a promise to your readers that you will commit to this goal for a month, and post your results every day.
11. Set goals. What are you trying to get out of your exercise? It's good to know if you're trying to build muscle or burn fat - because these are two competing goals. There are other goals, of course, but you should be clear what they are. Also, set goals for each week - what do you want to accomplish this week? Write it down, post it up, and see if you can meet them!
12. Make it fun! Exercise doesn't have to be a chore. I love doing a morning run, with the sun coming up, the world so quiet, my mind left to its own devices. Enjoy yourself and you will actually look forward to your workouts.
13. Fuel up. If your workout is more than 30 minutes, you really should have some energy in you. You shouldn't work out on an empty stomach - but you also shouldn't eat right before you work out. Eat a banana or some peanut butter toast or a CliffBar an hour or two before your workout, and you're good to go.
14. Hydrate. Also an hour or two before you workout. Water is best. Use a sports drink during your workout (and after) only if you're going to go an hour or more. If you're going to do a tough workout, stay hydrated throughout the day. In fact, go ahead and do this whether you work out or not.
15. Exercise early. My favorite time to work out is between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. Plus, I know that if I work out at this time, nothing will get in the way of the workout later in the day. It's a beautiful time of day, not too hot, and there's nothing like showering and going to work knowing that I've put in a great exercise (and it allows me to feel superior and look down my nose at those lazy bums I work with).
16. Get a workout buddy. Find someone at your level, and commit to working out a certain number of times a week together, at a certain time. This will make you more likely to keep that workout appointment, and workouts can be a lot of fun if you spend them chatting with your buddy. Just be sure to actually work out, and not just chat.
17. Change it up. Sure, walking or running every day can be a lot of fun. But getting some swimming or biking or strength workouts or aerobics or kickboxing into the mix can be a lot of fun, and can also help you get into better shape. They work out different muscles, and step up the metabolism. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
18. Do a little often. You don't need to work out long, and you certainly don't need to be a weekend warrior. Just 20-30 minutes every day. Who doesn't have 20 minutes on their schedule. You? Well, scratch "Walker Texas Ranger rerun" off the schedule and make room for this instead.
19. Just lace up. Yeah, you're dreading the upcoming workout. But don't even think about it. Just lace up and head out the door. That's all. After that, let nature take its course. Just relax and do what comes naturally. Which is exercise.
20. Follow the 10 percent rule. Don't increase your workout time or distance by more than 10 percent a week. This is a very conservative rule, and it can be broken by the best of the best, who know what they're doing, but for the rest of us, stick with this to prevent burnout or injury.
21. Go hard, then easy. If you do a hard workout today, rest or go easy tomorrow. Don't do two hard workouts in a row. The hard-easy approach can also work within a workout itself - run hard, then run slow, then run hard ... you get the idea. This allows you to burn more fat than if you just run medium the whole time.
22. Strength is good. If you're a walker or runner or cyclist or swimmer or something like that, you should also fit some strength training into your schedule. Nothing too intense, but just some core-strengthening exercises that will help your main sport as well as make you healthier and yes, more attractive.
23. Rest. It's important. This is a commonly overlooked factor. If you don't give your body some rest, you will burn out and get injured. Rest is just as important as the workouts in improving performance and fitness. As long as you're doing the workouts too and not just the rest!
24. Listen to your body. This is extremely important - if you feel like you're overdoing it, you probably are. Rest and allow your body to recover. And though you can run through some slight soreness or aches, you should stop as soon as you feel sharp pain or pain in the joints. You'll just make it worse.
25. No pain, no ... problem. Forget the old rule of "no pain, no gain." You don't need pain to get in shape. Just take it easy, progress gradually, and enjoy yourself.
Leo Babauta is the author of The Power of Less and the creator of the popular blog, Zen Habits.