How to Create Exercise Habit that Triggers a New Lifestyle

If I have to single out one habit that has the biggest impact in the quality of life, it would be to exercise. Why?

In 2012, Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter at The New York Times, published a very special book called The Power of Habit. Before going on a personal transformation retreat, make sure to put this book in your suitcase. This is an outstanding guidebook to understand our habits. When we understand and change our habits, we begin to alter our destiny. There is one concept in this book that particularly fascinates me – the concept of Keystone Habits. A Keystone Habit is the first domino in a domino effect – a habit that triggers other habits. Studies in the past decade about exercise show that when people begins to take up this habit, they start changing other patterns in their lives.

People who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less an show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. …For many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. ‘Exercise spills over,’ said James Prochaska,… ‘There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.’

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This is my case. 3 years ago, I slept 4 hours in weekdays and the whole day in weekends, ate trashy food, and would probably faint if someone make me run around the yard. Now I’m the one with the healthiest lifestyle in my circle. I feel bodily coordinated, strong, alert, and wonderful. For the record, I’ve been writing this article since 7AM after an 8-hour sleep, a yoga session and a hearty breakfast. Exercise, as regularly as once per week, changes everything.

Marinate this wisdom before diving into the tips and tricks of the matter. When we want to change, we tend to focus too much on the actions, but not the thinking. However, change our actions is superficial, short-lived quick-fixes. Changing our thoughts – our paradigms – affects how we see the world. When we begin to see differently, we will be guided from within to do differently. Only this results in lasting change.

Below are what I have learned through observing the struggle to shape exercise habit in myself and others. They correct common mistakes and pin down key instruction. If you have constantly failed your exercise plan or been thinking of starting one, they will benefit you.

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Start small

Most people’s exercise routine has the shape of a strange animal, it has the head of an elephant and the tail of a rat. They spend 2 hours on the first day in gym, 7 days in the first week. And after 1 month becoming the gym’s involuntary donator. This results from a beginner’s excitement and short term mindset. If you begins to view exercise as the first step to a new lifestyle, as the first domino, your approach will change. A lifestyle is life-long. It doesn’t stop after this summer’s bikini showdown.

In my experience, change that has big opening day goes away without notice. When you start big, the change become overwhelming. You face extreme resistance from your unconscious mind. Besides, your daily schedule and all the other things in your current universe can hardly adapt. It’s like swallowing a big piece of potato, you end up choking yourself.

So you want to start small and steady. Begins with 3, or even 2 times per week, 30 to 20 minutes each. Stay there, see if you can endure for a month. Listen to yourself, organize your life to accommodate this change.

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Choose a time and stick to it

I exercise first thing in the morning. Try this out for yourself. “Oh… I’m not a morning person,” you may say. I’m sorry but please don’t create a philosophy out of this. There is no one born “morning”. You drag yourself around every morning like crowd actors in The Walking Dead because you sleep late, and because you sleep randomly. This is 1+1=2 logic. Understand that saying Yes to sleeping late means saying No to exercise. Weight between the late night movie and the morning exercise - your entertainment impulse vs. your commitment to a better health. Make a choice, and be mindful that this choice reflects your value.

Morning time tends to be the best because nothing yet gets in the way. Choose the time slot that allows lowest risk of having something or somebody gets in its way. And stick to it.

Habit is like a tree. Once matured, it bends so that it doesn’t break. But when a sprout bends, it uproots. That’s why do your best to stick to the same time until your body and unconscious have adapted and liked exercising.

It is easier to push yourself to stand up while you lying on your bed fighting with yourself whether to go to the gym or not, because our brain is wired to learn routine. Besides, it’s convenient to plan your day around a fixed commitment – which lessens the risk of having things get in the way.

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Understand procrastination and resistance

Any personal change faces resistance. From others and from yourself. Others may begin to tease as you begin to sleep earlier and exercise at 6:30. They may tell you “Please, have a life!” when you leave evening parties earlier in order to get enough sleep for morning exercise. I wouldn’t argue with how they live their life, as much as I wouldn’t argue with frogs that want to live in the pond. My advice is either to ignore or to get rid of them. Those that dishearten you as you struggle to become better don’t deserve your energy.

However, the trickier resistance is the one coming from within. Exercise, like reading, is a learned preference. Your impulse never wants it before it happens, but once you’ve started it feels so good you don’t want to stop – provided that you exercise right which we will talk about next week – and when it ends you look forward to the next.

So the key here is to lure yourself into starting: to get up, put on your outfit, shut the door behind. I learn a simple trick from The Power of Habit that I would cut through my resistance easily, if I imagined in details what I would do the moment I wake up next morning: turn on my bed lamp, stand up, go to the bathroom, come back, put on yoga outfit, grab the backpack, walk downstairs, open the doors, take out my bicycle to the twilight of our small alley, push the pedal, and ride.

Why? Because I don’t give space for negative impulses to lurk in and tell me “Oh… The bed is so warm. Let’s sleep a little more. Let’s skip today. Only today. What harm can it cause? You are feeling so sleepy. Isn’t resting more important?”

This doesn’t mean that you have to be a supersonic robot every morning. Just be mindful when your impulses is whispering excuses in your earlobe. And don’t deceive yourself with you own excuses. Know it when your ego shows up as your own worst enemy. Knowingness can help you to cut through it, like a samurai.

What about you?

Are you ready to begin?

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