Want an Exercise Routine You’ll Stick To? Ask Yourself These 11 Questions.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or Quiz Day, or List Day.

This Wednesday: Want an exercise routine you’ll stick to? Ask yourself these eleven questions.

When I ask people what they’d like to do for their own happiness projects, they often say something like, “Exercise more regularly.” Exercise is very important for health and mood, and everyone knows this–and yet it’s often tough for people to stick to an exercise routine.

I think that one mistake is to choose a form of exercise based on a) what your friend recommends, b) what kind of change to your body you want to see, or c) what is the fashionable form of exercise. It’s helpful to consider these factors, but in the end, we’re far more likely to stick with an exercise routine that suits our nature and our schedule. If you’re struggling to exercise regularly, this is not the place to fight your nature! If you’ve been a night person all your life, vowing to get up at 5:00 a.m. to run isn’t very realistic.

Ask yourself these questions, and when you’re done, think about what kind of exercise routine would suit you best:

1. Are you a morning person or a night person?

2. Would you like to spend more time in nature?

3. Would you like more time in solitude; or more time with friends; or more time to meet new people?

4. Are you motivated by competition?

5. Do you enjoy loud music?

6. Do you do better with some form of external accountability, or does that just annoy you?

7. Would you like to challenge yourself with exercise (whether by learning a new skill or pushing yourself physically)–or not?

8. Do you like sports and games?

9. Would you like more meditative time, or more time to watch TV, read newspapers, etc?

10. Do you have a lot of control over your time?

11. Are you sensitive to weather?

Your answers should guide your thinking about exercise. Work out with a trainer? Take a class? Be inside or outside? etc.

For instance, if you’re a morning person who craves solitude and time alone with your thoughts, but has little control over  your schedule and hates feeling accountable to anyone, you might enjoy walking in a park every morning before you leave for work.

If you’re a night person who loves music and meeting new people, and is also motivated by accountability, you might like to take a dance-based exercise class after work.

Often, people will say, “Go for a twenty minute walk at lunch? That’s nothing. I really need to get in shape.” Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! The twenty minute walk you take is so much better for you than the three mile run you never do. You get the biggest health boost going from no exercise to some exercise.

Just a little tweak in a routine sometimes makes a big difference. For instance, to exercise on the weekends, I go for a long walk. Generally, I like to think while I walk, but I do a lot of walking every day, and I found myself getting bored on the long walks–and so finding excuses to skip them.

One of my Twelve Personal Commandments is to Identify the problem. What was the problem? “I’m bored during these walks, so I don’t want to go.” For the first time, I bought myself an audiobook, and for the past few weeks I’ve been listening to The Golden Compass when I walk. It makes me so happy! I haven’t missed a day’s walk since I started.

How about you? What aspects of your nature and your schedule make it easier–or harder–to stick to an exercise routine? What works for you?

  • Julia

    I would add that I find it helpful to let my exercise preferences and routines change over time. In the summer I like to be outside, in the winter I’m happy to be in. Sometimes I crave group classes and then I want a change and switch to solo for the “me time” and greater flexibility in my schedule.

    • gretchenrubin

      Very good point, not to assume that your preferences won’t change, but to adapt to the changing seasons and your changing desires.

    • JW

      Same here! I get bored SO easily. Have to change my routine every 2-4 weeks or I quit.

    • diana

      So true but easy to forget the impact of the seasons. I live by a beautiful lake in Minneapolis with a running/walking path and had a resolution to get to the lake each day (experience the beauty of the outdoors, etc). It took me a while to realize that even though there are a surprising number of Minnesotans that like to exercise outside in subzero weather, I am not one of them (even on the “warm” 30 degree days). So now I lift weights or do my exercise bike in my pajamas in the morning in front of some great tv show – as opposed to last winter where I tried to exercise outside in the (dark) morning.

  • Nicole

    I have been running for the last year and decided to join a running group to take it to the next level. I am so glad I did. Turns out, running (for me) is much more fun when I am making new friends at the same time!

    • gretchenrubin

      Excellent example.

  • Farooq

    That really is very good, specially for a person like me who wants to change him self but find it difficult to change the status co, despite having not a very busty schedule.

  • pseuzieq

    1.) Get up, make b’fast for family, stick it in oven on “warm” for whatever time they get to it as they come downstairs. Same for lunches –>fridge 2.) Change out of pjs into workout gear. 3.) 40 minutes on treadmill while watching DVD on laptop, positioned near treadmill. [It’s unbearable without my DVD/streaming!] 4.) 20 minutes gentle yoga and stretching. 5.) 30 minute meditation unless I’m really under-rested [I would fall asleep] 6.) shower and get ready for day. It won’t happen if I don’t do it this way, every business day of the week. I do ZERO exercise on Saturday and Sunday, although the occasional bike ride or long stroll finds its way in spontaneously. :-)

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great schedule – so much accomplished in such a limited amount of time, and consistently.

    • KatieB

      I am with you on the streaming laptop alongside my morning workouts! I just ran on the treadmill while listening to TED talks. I feel smarter and healthier.

  • Lou

    I really like going for a walk at lunch time, even if it is only for a brief bit of fresh air. I try to walk for 30 minutes though. I always have a pedometer in my pocket and that gives me an incentive – I know I won’t get my 10,000 steps that day if I don’t go for a walk and I find that “accountability” really helpful as an incentive (and I don’t have to do anything to have a record to check on my daily progress, the pedometer just ticks away in my pocket as I walk).

    I have also started to listen to an iPod when I walk. I either listen to a BBC Radio 4 podcast – it could be a programme that makes me think or something really engaging like Desert Island Discs etc (I am British, maybe these aren’t available in the US) – or I have come up with a list of happy songs to listen to. Everyone of the songs is designed to enhance my mood. I really love all of the songs and am often listening out for new ones to add to the list. If I try out a song and it turns out not to hit the spot as it should, it gets deleted from the list. This all makes walking a real pleasure, and makes me look forward to a lunch time stroll. Rain and snow (within reason) is no barrier for me to have a walk. A bit of exercise and a head filled with good things. Great!

    I liked your questions and will ponder them to see how I can make the best of my day.

  • zhongyanwang

    A song to listen to a long time taste light, a person for a long time, it will lose its significance, one thing to good, now not to do, for a long time, people will fall, also does not have the significance, will gradually lose their minds.

    Dream is beautiful, as early as the mountain to be in the best of spirits to fetch, fantasy, the result is.

    About exercise that interested, if interested, do things to twice the result with half the effort. Sometimes to exercise real running, sometimes go jogging in the park, the interest is if the exercise room or park. There is a beauty to run, then I must be one of the fastest, hey, this is interesting.

  • Domingo Rodriguez

    I Love the ‘Less is More’ approach. I set a goal of walking 1.42 miles every day which is about 18 – 20 minutes of daily exercise. It doesn’t sound like much but over the course of 1 year that totals up to 520 miles. I’ve been doing it for 30 days now so I guess it’s officially a habit and it’s quick enough to do under the busiest of times. Less is a million times better than zero.

  • Ella

    This is all very sensible. I would just add that it makes sense to try something new every once in a while because you just never know what you might like. I was always a runner (solitary, on my own schedule, quiet, self-motivated, outdoors) until I hurt my knee. Out of desperation I tried a spin class (riding in a packed indoor studio with very loud music, taking commands from an instructor, on the studio’s schedule) — and I absolutely loved it. Now I go four times a week, usually at 6 am – a time I never thought I would be able to exercise. (Incidentally, I tried the 6 am for the first time because was inspired by your post regarding waking up an hour earlier to fit something different into your life). I also took up ice skating a few years ago – something else I would never have thought I would enjoy as an adult. I guess my point is that when it comes to exercise it’s good to venture out of your comfort zone, because it’s not always obvious what you will ultimately enjoy — even if you are a long-time exerciser.

    • gretchenrubin

      An excellent point. We can be surprised by the things we enjoy.

  • Kristy

    This post came at just the right time—I’ve thought a lotabout how I exercise recentl!. I would almost simplify the quest for the right exerciseregime to two questions:

    What kind of exercise do I enjoy—what doesn’t even seem like work or a nagging task?

    For the past few years, I’d get into “running spurts.” I
    knew it was good exercise, a bunch of my friends were runners, I could be
    outside, etc. The thing is—I never really liked
    running. Sure, it wasn’t awful—but I never looked forward to it. I never
    said “ahh I’m so excited to go for my run today.” So I would start running for
    a few weeks, a few months—but always gave it up. Same thing with swimming. I
    have a friend who is dedicated swimmer, and I knew it would be good for me b/c
    I have some joint pain—but then I remembered, I don’t like swimming either! But
    I joined a gym and started taking a few classes and I realized I loved the
    dance classes (something I enjoyed in college too). I barely have to motivate
    myself to go to the gym now. It’s fun and I look forward to it! I should
    probably start supplmenting it with strength training, but it’s better then
    nothing. Exercise doesn’t seem like a “task” when you love what you do.

    What exercise is “easy” for me to do?

    I love to ride my bike, hike, kayak, ride horses etc. During
    good weather, I try to get outdoors and do these activities as much as
    possible. But I know that I can’t depend on it for all my exercise—its very
    weather, location, and season-dependent (as well as high-cost in some cases). In
    other words, it’s not always easy to do. Consequently, I know that in bad/cold
    weather, or when faced with time constraints, I need to be able to make exercise
    easier. And after a long day at work, commuting to/from a gym (or for that
    matter, a state park/outdoor area) is not going to happen. Some of my friends
    are members of a gym a ½ hour bus ride away (I live in Chicago). I pay $40 more
    a month so I can be close to my gym—it’s a 5 minute walk from my apartment.
    Sure, it’s more expensive, but exercise is so much easier that way!

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    Hi Gretchen!

    I think that thinking in terms of movement rather than exercise is a great start for most people, plus it is something that people who are already exercising should start thinking about.

    Most of us have heard the bad effects of sitting. In a 13-year long study it was reported that people who sat most of the day were more likely to die (54% chance) of heart attacks relative to the ones who didn’t,

    Prolonged sitting affects us regardless of whether we are exercising or not. Hence, reducing our sitting time is our Nr. 1 priority.

    Taking frequent breaks, making rules like standing up when on the phone, including 5-10 min chunks of exercise throughout the day, are a great way to feel less rusty and more vital.

    Then one step leads to another…

  • Ashley

    I love this list! For me, I’ve learned that sticking to a workout requires finding an activity that is FUN for me. I used to compete in pageants and for years had a hard time adjusting to ‘normal’ exercise as opposed to an intense two hour workout. Now, I gladly give myself a gold star for taing a 20-minute walk. Moving is exercise and I think walking is fun… Plus there are SO MANY new options. I LOVE indoor rock climbing! I was hesitant (petrified), but gave it a shot, and have been hooked ever since! Because I’ve opened up about exercise, I love zumba, spinning, and hot yoga. This summer, I may even join a rowing team or a running club! I never realized how many options I had. Honestly, I hate self-guiding at the gym. I can’t imagine anything more boring. I wrote an article about this recently. It is locally catered, but likely has options in any community. To your happy readers, enjoy if interested! 11 fun options! http://www.newbedfordguide.com/get-fit-new-bedford/2013/01/15

  • Michael D.

    Excellent post! I love the idea of making a program for YOU instead of forcing yourself to exercise how others like to.

    An additional tip in this “baby steps” approach is to focus on what you did do each day (no matter how small), instead of what you didn’t do. Just putting on your shoes and stretching every day is a great start, even if you don’t make it much further!

  • http://www.honestattraction.com/ Courtney Lebedzinski

    Great reminder not to let perfect be the enemy of good. The best type of exercise is the one that you will do consistently.

  • Lauren @ EatLikeAnElephant.com

    I love this post! It is so true that everyone needs to find whatever activity works for them!

  • Sarahhp

    I was thinking about this very thing recently. I’ve got three month old twins and am ready to start getting back in shape. My first thought was to go for something really high intensity but taking a step back i realised that this was totally not right for me now. I’ve gone for doing a home based Pilates program on dvd I can do it at home while the babies are sleeping. I’m finding it really easy to stick to and very calming.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great example.

  • Safru

    One of my resolutions is to take (at least) 10,000 steps a day. As the days got shorter I was finding it really hard to motivate myself to walk in the dark and the rain. After spending a few weeks staying with my dad, who lives in a well-lit subdivision, I was reminded how much I enjoyed walking in the evenings. I decided to “identify the problem” and realized that I felt invisible and unsafe walking on the roads at home. I bought a reflective vest with an LED strip on the front and back and it has made such a difference. I notice some cars slowing down as they pass, which never happened before (and still doesn’t happen during daylight – I think the LED light freaks them out), regardless, I’m trilled because now I am getting my 10,000 steps in most days!

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great example of identifying a problem and finding a solution.

  • Kittee

    Sometimes I am stuck inside on the treadmill or bike and get bored to tears! Gym tvs are always set to the news, golf, or ESPN. My sister suggested using a tablet to download tv shows – how it makes the time fly!

    I’ve now started watching Downton Abbey (on Netflix app if you have wifi or iTunes if you don’t), and I’m disturbing fellow gym mates with all my gasping and snickering! Heehee! How that 45 minutes just flies by now!

  • SchnauzerLogic

    the fitness regime that has worked for me: “Do Less, More Often!”

  • Stacie Gorkow @SincerelyStacie

    I DVD certain shows ABCs only allow myself to watch them when I am on the treadmill. It forces me to get on so I can watch my show or movie.

    • Stacie Gorkow @SincerelyStacie

      DVD = DVR
      ABCs = and
      Darn autocorrect.

  • Kelly Jones

    Hello, My Happy-Project Friend’s
    This is my first time -working toward great health and fittness. I hope that this will be exciting journey for me. I’ll hope you’ll all will give me great suggestion to stay focus. And continue this journey to finishing my goal to loose 60pd by December 2013.

  • Pingback: An Exercise Plan You Can Stick To()

  • http://iwillteachyoualanguage.com/ Olly Richards

    This is right on the money!

    The thing that I would emphasise is the psychological risk of setting a routine that’s too ambitious and then not being able to stick to it. By doing that you’re really setting yourself up for failure. I find it’s much more beneficial to start small (the 20 minute walk that you actually do!), stick to that successfully, and build up from there.

    By successfully sticking to one routine (however small), you’re sewing the right seeds. This has big motivational effects and from there you can build up to a more robust routine which you can actually stick to.

  • Marquette Mary

    I love the phr ase Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good as it is something I need to remember in many areas of my life. I just read the book “The Gift of Imperfection” and realized it truly is a gift. It is relief from constantly feeling that nagging feeling about having to do this or do that and doing things “just because I should”…so I’m working on remembering that sometimes “it is good enough”….but always remembering “I’m good enough”…I don’t have to be Wonder Woman and can focus on what’s important to me…so when talking about exercise, I’m using a yearly calendar that is near my exercise equipment and every day I write down what I did or didn’t do….ie 30 minutes elliptical (and I write down the calories for logging into myfitnesspal.com (which I love)…and then on days I don’t exercise, I jot a brief note to remind me what I did instead….”hot tub”, “massage”, “visited Mom”…etc, something that is still a positive either for myself or for someone else…then at the end of the month, I look and usually I am around 50% of the days I have done some formal type of exercise….