My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Nine Tips to Keep Yourself Exercising, from a Former Couch Potato

RunnerEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Nine Tips to Keep Yourself Exercising.

One of the most commonly made, and most frequently broken, New Year’s resolutions is the resolution to exercise more.

People who exercise are healthier, more energetic, think more clearly, sleep better, have delayed onset of dementia…the list goes on.

There’s also a lot of research into the connection between exercise and happiness – some studies suggest that it provides a real boost, some studies suggest that while correlated, exercise isn’t a factor in making people happier. I’m interested to see what further studies reveal, but I’ve made up my own mind: in my experience, and the experience of everyone I know who exercises, exercise makes me calmer, more cheerful, and more alert.

But even once you’re convinced of the benefits, if you’re not inclined to exercise, it can be hard to adopt the habit. My favorite activity is reading in bed, and I don’t enjoy games of any sort, but over the years I’ve managed to transform myself into a regular exerciser by deploying these strategies:

1. Always exercise on Monday. This sets the psychological pattern for the week.

2. If at all possible, exercise first thing in the morning. The longer the day goes on, the more likely you are to get derailed.

3. Never skip exercising for three days in a row. You can skip a day, and you can skip two days, but on the third day, you must exercise no matter how inconvenient. (This rule is more effective than it sounds; it kept me exercising regularly during college.)

4. Give yourself credit for the smallest effort. When my father started running, he said that all he had to do was put on his running shoes and close the door behind him. I never push myself hard, because I know that if I did, I might stop exercising altogether. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The fifteen-minute walk you DO take is better than the three-mile run you DON’T take.

5. If you don’t have time both to exercise and take a shower, find an activity that doesn’t require a shower afterward, like yoga or walking. I do an extremely tough weight-training regimen that doesn’t make me sweat (and yes, it is effective, even with no sweat!).

6. Look for affordable ways to make exercising more pleasant or satisfying. Could you upgrade to a nicer gym? Buy yourself a new iPod? Work with a trainer? Get a pedometer? (they’re only $20). A lot of people are feeling a real money crunch right now, but exercise is a high life priority, so if you can afford it, this is a place to spend some money if that helps.

7. Remind yourself of the benefits from exercising. Personally, I’m more motivated by short-term gratifications like “I’ll feel more focused” or “I’ll sleep better” than long-term considerations like “I’ll live longer” or “If I have surgery, I’ll recover quicker.” A trainer told me that, in her experience, men are more motivated by the idea of improving their performance (a better tennis game) or restoring an ability (climbing stairs without getting out of breath); women are more motivated by the promise of improving their appearance.

8. Think about context. If you find it much harder to go running in winter than summer, maybe the real trouble is that you don’t like the cold. Do you hate the loud music in your gym? Is your work-out so exhausting that you can’t face the rest of your day?

9. When choosing an activity, a gym, or an exercise class, make convenience a top priority. You’re much more likely to go to a mediocre gym near your office or home than to a great gym that’s out of your way.

Apart from the happiness gain you’ll get from the exercise, merely the fact that you’ve kept your resolution to yourself will boost your happiness.

* A blog I’ve enjoyed for a long time is Marginal Revolution. It’s about economics — always interesting and often raises issues that touch directly on the subject of happiness.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.