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5 mental tricks to make exercise a habit that sticks

These tactics can help you break out of a self-defeating cycle and create a long-lasting commitment to fitness.
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Key takeaways

  • One reason so many are unsuccessful with keeping up with workout goals is that the foundation is rooted in negative reinforcement.
  • Breaking out of a self-defeating cycle can help you create a long-lasting commitment to fitness.
  • Focus on the positives of working out, such as less stress, more energy, or a deeper connection to your workout partner. 

While the top resolution for 2023 was to start an exercise habit, studies show that most people abandon their new year’s goals within a month. It seems that the habit that sticks most is vowing to work out, rather than actually working out.  

One reason so many are unsuccessful with keeping up with workout goals is because the foundation is rooted in negative reinforcement, says David Spiegel, psychiatrist and professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

If you subscribe to all-or-nothing thinking or a “no pain, no gain” mentality, you’re likely to give up if you feel like you can’t do things perfectly, or worse, push your body past what it’s currently capable of, which can sideline you with an injury or pain.

These five expert-backed tactics can help you break out of a self-defeating cycle and create a long-lasting commitment to fitness.

1. Create an alter ego 

Adopting an identity that draws on traits you admire can be an effective strategy for tackling a challenge—just like Beyoncé tapped into a more outspoken and fearless version of herself as her alter ego Sasha Fierce

Think about what characteristics would make you more successful in reaching your goals. Instead of waiting for changes to appear, show up to your workouts as though you already have those traits, suggests Spiegel, who is also the cofounder of the self-hypnosis app Reveri

You’re not trying to be a good football player; you’re the former starting quarterback, he says. You have the agility and determination of a world-class athlete. 

Assuming a different identity allows you to block out the noise of anxiety and self-defeating thoughts and embrace positive attributes that will help you get where you want to go.

It’s like getting in a different car; you drive differently, you feel different,” he says. 

2. Try habit stacking

One of the hardest parts of creating a new workout habit is having the willpower to follow through with it. Habit stacking can help by linking new behaviors with already established ones so they require less mental effort on your part. 

For example, if answering email is already a natural part of your routine, you can decide that after you respond to a specific number, you’ll do 20 squats. Eventually, you won’t have to work to remember the squats, because responding to the messages is a trigger and the squats will become habitual. 

“The brain likes to make associations, so habit stacking works because you are breaking down the goal,” says Samantha E. Stepleton, a licensed clinical social worker.

3. Focus on the immediate rewards 

Delayed gratification may work for some people, but not for those struggling to create and stick to a habit. 

“The key to behavior change is immediate, positive reinforcement.” says Spiegel. “You need to feel good, not a month from now, and not when you lose three pounds.” 

Instead, he says, immediately focus on the positives of working out. Do you feel less stressed or have more energy? Perhaps you feel more connected to your workout partner. 

Remind yourself that you are being a good caretaker of your body. Take a moment to acknowledge feeling mentally lighter, stronger, or happier.  

4. Enhance your environment

The environment in which you’re building the workout habit should make exercise feel easy and not like a chore. 

“One way to begin is to create spaces where your nervous system can relax,” says Stepleton, Director of Social Services at Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation. “Science suggests our brains are wired to respond to our surroundings.”

While basements and attics are common choices for workout spaces, they can be dark and uninviting environments. Choosing a space with plenty of windows might make you more inclined to exercise. Research also shows that exposure to natural lighting can improve mood, sleep, and happiness—all of which can help fuel a workout routine. 

Experts also suggest incorporating other pleasantries you might find at the gym, such as a scent diffuser or flavored water, to create a calming and welcoming environment. 

5. Try hypnosis

Some of the greatest athletes, including Tiger Woods, have relied on hypnosis to help get them “in the zone.”

Hypnosis is a way of intensifying attention on your goal while disconnecting from old ways, explains Spiegel. Hypnosis can help you break away from default behavior that might be standing in your way and align your actions to your desires. 

Utilizing self-hypnosis can be helpful by making you more open to suggestions and change as they pertain to habits you want to create, says Spiegel. 

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