Secrets to Building a Rock Solid Workout Habit

May 20, 2016

Working out makes people feel amazing. But it stresses lots of people out. Something so good seems out of reach for so many people—70% of people don’t exercise at all. Only 15% of people regularly exercises a few times a week or more. There’s a huge disconnect between what people want for themselves and what they actually do.


Back when I was meeting with new health club members to talk about their fitness goals, I would ask them, “So what’s stopping you?”

“Time.” That was the answer 9 out of 10 times.

But is that the full story? For a single mom with three kids and three jobs, of course. But for the vast majority of people, “lack of time” really means something else.

I used to say that it means exercising doesn’t rank as highly as other things on the priority list, or that there is a struggle with motivation. Those may be true, particularly for somebody having trouble getting started. But when it comes to difficulty sticking with exercise over the long haul, it boils down to one simple thing:

Working out hasn’t become a rock solid habit yet.

No matter who you are, you’re busy and have lots of other things competing for your time. No matter who you are, you aren’t always in the mood to exercise. It’s only when something is etched into you as a habit that you consistently put in the time and effort despite the many possible distractions and barriers.

I’ve been on both ends of the fitness spectrum in my life. I spent many years working out regularly, but let it slip in a major way. I went through a period of years where I stopped exercising completely. I eventually regretted swinging so far in that direction that I decided to work my way back into fitness as a way of life.

I did it—I’ve been working out 5-6 times a week regularly for many years now. And I became so committed I went back to become a personal trainer.

But at that low point, I was starting from nothing, just like the many people I interviewed as a personal trainer who told me their barrier to working out was “time.”

I learned many things during my transformation and many more working with other people. The real secret to getting in the habit and staying in the habit boils down to two things.

Secret 1:  Reduce your expectations and increase your expectations simultaneously.
This was the game changer for me in creating momentum. Prior to my multi-year workout hiatus, I would go to the gym for an hour a few times a week. Sometimes I would stay for 90 minutes… my logic was that I had dragged myself all the way there, so I could put in some extra work and give myself an extra day off in between. (Surprised I failed? That attitude pretty much says it all.)

So when I wanted to get back into exercising, I initially carried that same level of expectation of 60+ minute workouts. And I struggled.

Then I changed the recipe. My new goal became working out every day for 15-20 minutes. Just a 20 minute jog. Or 15 minutes of push-ups, chin-ups, and situps. It was so much easier to get over the motivational threshold to work out for 20 minutes. It was so much easier to find the time. It was so much harder to come up with excuses.

Pretty soon I was working out regularly.

And a shift took place. Working out went from mostly feeling like “pain-in-the-ass work I have to do” to something I enjoyed. Not always, but most of the time.

The good news is that with the comeback of High Intensity Interval Training, 20 minute workouts are now in vogue and backed up with even more evidence of their effectiveness. (To be clear, my initial 15-20 minute workouts were not HIIT. They were still somewhat lazy. And that was helpful for me in sticking with them.)

So reduce your expectations to short workouts, but increase your expectations to working out to at least 5 days a week, and preferably 7 days a week. Build momentum. Get yourself to the place where missing a workout gnaws at you and makes you feel off.

Secret 2:  Build yourself a portfolio of fitness options.

I am busier than I’ve ever been. But I’m better about working out regularly than I’ve ever been. Part of that is because I’ve built up a habit. But I wouldn’t have been been able to do that if I hadn’t used this “portfolio” tactic. And I think the portfolio tactic is critical for everyone, even people who have already built up a solid workout habit.

The basic idea is this: Give yourself a wide variety of places and formats in which you can work out. The minute you limit your definition of a successful workout to just one thing, you have created a barrier. If you only feel you’ve succeeded if you’ve brought yourself to a 1-hour yoga class or gone to the gym for a full workout, you’re exponentially more likely to fail at sticking with your habit.

Too many things can blow up your ability to get to your class or get to the gym. A busy work week. Travel. A child who is home sick from school. And any time you don’t squeeze in a workout when that is your intent, your habit loses just a little bit of its strength and momentum.

These days I give myself a ton of options. I am fortunate enough to have free access to a gym at work. But it’s not open 7 days/week, so I also belong to a gym. I can justify that because it’s only $10/month. I also own a decent pair of running shoes. I also play soccer in the warm months. I also have access to YouTube and can watch someone lead me through some yoga sequences. I also have a collection of stuff to work out with at home, which I’ve built up over time:

In the beginning, all I had were three things that I used for my 15-20 minute workouts that I credit with getting me back into the exercise habit:

  • $30 door frame chin-up bar (leaning against the pillar)
  • $15 exercise mat (which isn’t a necessity if you have carpet)
  • $20 push-up thingies (which aren’t necessary for push-ups, but allowed me to do dips with my feet on a chair)
  • Running shoes
  • Some killer tunes

Over time, I gradually added to it:

  • $80 adjustable bench
  • $20 stability ball
  • $15 medicine ball
  • free power blocks I found on the side of the road (lucky, I know)
  • free hand-me down weights from the 80’s — I had to supply the Duran Duran

(I prefer to run or play soccer, but the elliptical in the picture runs for about $900.)

The point is that for basically no money, you can get in a solid workout at home or outside. If you don’t believe me, I’ll go over to your house and give you the best workout of your life with nothing but a floor, 4 towels, and 5 five of your favorite songs. Don’t make gym memberships, equipment, training advice, or anything else a barrier. You’ve got options, baby. Use ’em all.

Of course there are so many other things that can help you build momentum. Find a workout buddy. Make a bet with your friends. Find a type of exercise you actually find enjoyable. Get a coach or a personal trainer. Sign up for a race.

But don’t over-complicate it. Just do the two essential things: Commit yourself to 15-20 minutes every day. And redefine success to include a wide variety of possible workouts.

There isn’t anything you can do that is more important than consistency. There’s nothing else you need. There’s nothing I can offer as a trainer that’s more valuable than your consistency. Maybe they’ll come try to rip my certification away for saying that. But it’s true.

Start with consistency. End with superhero.