How to make exercise a regular part of your life

Learn to stop worrying and love working out.

group spinning on exercise bikes
Yes, you can enjoy your time at the gym.Depositphotos

Whether or not you’ve resolved to get into shape this January, Muscle Month is here to teach you a thing or two about stretching, contracting, lifting, tearing, gaining, and so much more.

In theory, everyone agrees: We should get more exercise. Working out helps us live longer and healthier lives, after all. But in practice, many of us struggle to keep moving throughout the day. So how do we make a habit of getting off the couch and onto the treadmill?

For true motivation, it helps to actually enjoy your workouts. Here’s how to convince your lazy brain to love exercise.

Start with your mindset

Feeling good about the gym doesn’t just encourage you to go regularly—it can also affect the quality of your exercise. Multiple studies have shown that your body’s reaction to working out might change based on your expectations.

In 2018, a study led by Stanford University psychologist Alia Crum found that telling participants they were genetically inclined to be better at physical fitness affected how well they performed on a treadmill test—whether or not they actually had the relevant gene. Previously, Crum had found similar results when researchers told subjects that their regular jobs were also good workouts. After hearing this news, participants' bodies reacted as if their daily activity really did improve their health. A 2016 study backed up Crum's findings: If people hit the gym with a belief they'd see more power in their exercise and feel happier afterward, they had better workouts.

All this research suggests that your attitude matters. If you start from a place of “Ugh, time to run again,” you’re holding yourself back not just mentally, but also physically.

To overcome this, focus on physical activity that you enjoy on its own merits. Lyn Lindbergh, a certified personal trainer, has spent a decade working on exercise and motivation. She points out that the best way to improve your mindset is to ignore stereotypes and try different things.

“We get in this rut where yoga is for the skinny, aqua aerobics is for the elderly, and weightlifting is for the meatheads,” Lindbergh says. “When it comes to figuring out what’s fun for you, break your stereotypes about who does what kind of exercise. You’ll be surprised by what you like.”

Another way to enjoy getting fit is to do it with a friend. People with close friends who exercise tend to work out more consistently themselves. In 2015, a study of Japanese senior citizens found that working out in a group made them more likely to hit the gym or take a walk. Even having friends who talk about their routines and post their times online can boost your enthusiasm for exercise.

Change your motivation

Another way to propel yourself into your athletic duds is to find a good motivation. After the eating orgy of the holidays, many of us resolve to lose weight in the new year. But that might not actually be the best way to turn exercise into a regular activity.

In fact, you can work out like the hardest-core fitness guru and still not lose weight. Working out will only increase your overall caloric burn by 10 to 30 percent. The biggest withdrawal from your caloric bank comes not from that physical activity, but from your basal metabolic rate, which how much energy your body burns when it's at rest.. Although you could try to alter that rate with exercise, your workouts might not affect it. Some things do change that resting metabolic rate, but what works for one person may not be as effective for another.

For most of us, looking like a model is medically impossible. And even if you manage to make extreme changes in the short term, that loss may boomerang: In a fascinating study of contestants on The Biggest Loser, researchers found that the contestant's bodies fought their weight loss by slowing down their metabolisms. The human body isn't happy when it loses its energy stores, even if that fat drags it down in other ways.

All this is to say that your goal should not be to achieve the perfect body. Instead, aim to establish a habit that will improve your overall health and mood. And if that's not enough to motivate you, look for other advantages that turn the gym from a chore to a pleasure..

For example, you might schedule a workout during the work-day, using that physical activity as an excuse to get away from your desk for half an hour. This could even help you be more productive at the office. If you have other errands to run over your lunch break, turn them into your exercise of the day: Walk or bike to the store with a backpack instead of driving.

Another way to make the gym more enjoyable: Use your treadmill time to catch up on all those podcasts and audiobooks. In 2018, an American College of Cardiology study found evidence that having something in their ears distracted subjects from their physical discomfort, which allowed them to work out for longer periods. On the less positive side, a Cambridge University study from 2016 found that, if you want to hit your absolute peak physical performance, you should focus entirely on how you move. Still, when most of us exercise, the issue is not how hard you do it, but how often.

Consistency matters more than intensity

But wait, shouldn’t all workouts provide heavy, sweaty action? Lindbergh says that it’s more about consistency than intensity.

"One year, I was having some health issues, and all I did for an entire year was walk and lift some weights. And my legs were in the best shape they'd been in years," she says. "I walked 2016 miles in the year 2016, so it was a lot of walking!"

Scientists agree that even a low-intensity exercise like walking, when undertaken consistently, has real health benefits. In a 2014 Journal of the American College of Cardiology study, just five to ten minutes a day was enough to improve subjects' health, provided they put in those minutes every single day.

Lindbergh notes that our expectations of what counts as “physical fitness” tend to come from marketing departments rather than science. “We’re so bombarded by fitness marketing that has products to sell you,” she says. “They say ‘This is fitness! This will give you a six-pack of sweaty abs.’ However, a lot of really good exercises are free. We never see it in marketing because there’s no money to be made from it.”

The science bears this out. When Vox ran a survey of the research into running and walking in 2015, they found that—while there's some argument over which exercise is better for your health—either option was better than sitting. Just getting moving burns more energy and provides at least some of the psychological and emotional benefits of exercise. That's why health organizations don't suggest endless hours of gym time: The CDC's 2018 recommendations for adults simply say to get 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity, or 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, per week.

Of course, “the more the better” certainly applies to exercise. But if worries about intensity are keeping you from doing anything at all, then commit to more modest goals. It’s best to pick activities that you can keep doing in the long term, because consistently doing any type of exercise will pay off for your overall health.

Exactly what that activity is doesn't matter too much. For example, in 2000, the American Heart Association said that weightlifting a few times a week had benefits similar to cardio for your cardiac health. In more recent years, a 2017 cohort study found that moderate strength training had heart benefits independent of any cardio done by the participants.

Work on building the habit

Fitness isn't a short-term achievement, but a lifelong journey. To get there, break a big goal down into manageable pieces. For example, if you want to get in the CDC's minimum amount of exercise, but can't simply divide it by seven and walk exactly 21.428 minutes every day, try striding ten minutes a day and work up to repeating that ten-minute period two or three times a day. Even just walking to the store and back helps.

More and more research points toward the idea that small amounts of exercise can have a cumulative effect. In the long term, three short walks a day have effectively the same benefits—retaining muscle strength and improving balance—as one long one.

So consider not just what will make you feel better about yourself now, but how it can be a step towards another goal. As you take step after step, they’ll add up, even if it’s only five minutes a day.