Consistency equals results, so try this research-backed trick to make exercise a natural part of your day. (Photo: Henn Photography/Cultura/Corbis)
You’ve tried working with a personal trainer, hitting the running trail, and signing up for every you’ve-got-to-try-this exercise class known to the fitness world. Still, if going to the gym feels a lot like dragging yourself to the gym, you probably haven’t managed to make it the automatic habit it needs to be in order to stay consistent.
The solution: Stop focusing on your workout and start paying attention to cues that make you want to move, suggest new findings published in the journal Health Psychology. In the study, researchers from Iowa State University and King’s College London examined the exercise habits of 118 healthy adults and found that those who set cues for themselves — like keeping running shoes next to the front door, setting a cellphone reminder, or heading straight to the gym after work — were more likely to exercise.
That’s because, when it comes to making exercise a habit, it’s not the exercise itself that’s the hard part. “It’s getting started,” says study co-author L. Alison Phillips, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “So if that decision is automatic, then the person doesn’t have to spend mental energy and self-control to force him or herself to engage in exercise.”
What’s more, the study found that internal cues — thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations — are better at making exercise a habit than external ones like alarm clocks. Internal cues can range from feeling like your legs are tight when you’ve been sitting at your desk for too long, to feeling your blood pressure rise when your to-do list spirals out of control, Phillips says. “Once an individual learns that exercise can ‘treat’ a negative mood or stress, then he or she might form a habit from that internal cue.”
But listening and responding to the right internal cues from your body takes some practice. “When you are first starting to exercise and your alarm goes off at 6 a.m., your internal cue isn’t to work out, it’s to hit the snooze button,” explains Barbara Walker, PhD, a sports psychologist with the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati.
For that reason, Walker suggests using external cues for a few weeks or even months so that you can start to appreciate how you feel after working out. Once you notice how much less stressed you are after your workout, you’ll head to the gym as soon as you start to feel a tension headache coming on. And when you realize how much more energized you feel after getting the blood pumping, you’ll replace your 3 p.m. Trenta habit with a few laps around the office.