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5 Science-Backed Strategies That Will Make It Easier Than Ever to Build Exercise Habits

No matter what obstacles threaten to derail your progress, this action plan can keep you on track.

Workout streak on Tonal; building exercise habits

Whatever your exercise goal may be, the question of what makes someone stick to a behavior has stumped researchers and practitioners alike for decades. But when life derails your workout routine or your motivation plummets, research shows that relying on habits you’ve developed over time can help you go on autopilot—getting the work done without too much brainpower.

That’s why we’re all eager to unlock the secret behind how to build bulletproof workout habits, especially considering that only 20 percent of Americans meet the physical activity guidelines set by the American College of Sports Medicine. If you are already using your Tonal at least two to three times per week and getting your cardio in (at least 150 minutes at moderate intensity), give yourself a pat on the back—you’re part of the minority. If not, give these five science-backed strategies for habit formation a try this year.

5 Ways to Master Your Habits

1. Create a Personal Workout Window

Maintaining a consistent workout window may be one of the best ways to stick to your workout routine. In a large study published in Obesity Society, researchers evaluated the consistency in time of day of moderate to vigorous physical activity in individuals who have successfully maintained weight loss on the National Weight Control Registry. Sixty-eight percent of the participants had a consistent workout window, and those individuals worked out more in general. 

Try It: Think about what time of day you prefer to work out and then lock that window in for some form of physical activity—even if it’s just a short walk—for just one week to get started. You don’t even need to stick to one specific time of the day like 7 a.m.; you can do this in chunks of time (think: morning, afternoon, evening) to give yourself flexibility in the window.

A simple way to jump-start progress is to practice turning on and off habit cues. Habit cues link a stimulus in the environment with an associated action. For example, when you see a red light while driving (stimulus), you automatically slow down your car to a stop (action) without much conscious thought.

2. Develop Workout Cues

In a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, participants who used habit cues for exercise increased their moderate to vigorous physical activity over those who did not. These participants were also almost two times more likely to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines: at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise and two to three strength training sessions per week. 

Try It: Mimic what participants did in the study by setting out your favorite gym clothes before leaving for work (stimulus) so that you get the workout in as soon as you get home (action). Once you finish the workout, put away the gym clothes to avoid associating the cue (or stimulus) with other activities. If you prefer to exercise in the morning, you can apply the same ritual to your before-bed routine and with other cues that are useful to you like setting up your Tonal workout space so it’s ready to go ahead of time. 

3. Create an Action Plan

Imagine every meeting at work without an agenda or a large home renovation coming up with no specific plan for execution. Those meetings or projects likely won’t be very successful. The same can be said about your workout. By setting an action plan, goals, and intentions, you can prepare for success. 

In a study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, researchers found action planning was particularly effective for participants with weak habits. So if you haven’t quite gotten into the swing of things in your habit formation, planning out your workouts ahead of time can close that gap. Once you get your habits firing on all cylinders, both intention planning and habit formation are strong predictors of following through with exercise behaviors, found a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Try It: Pre-plan your week of workouts in a journal or add them to your calendar. Instead of just jotting down a broad category like “workout,” “cardio,” or “strength,” write down exactly which Tonal or off-Tonal workout you plan to do, with details on the sets, reps, or miles, etc. as that specificity may actually improve behavior adherence. On Tonal, use the routine planning features to schedule your programs and workouts in advance. You’ll also get notifications on the Tonal mobile apps on days you have a workout planned.

4. Use the “If, Then” Method to Plan for Chaos

Life rarely goes to plan. Creating a Plan B when things go awry can be key to keeping you moving toward successful habit formation. That’s where formulating “If, Then” scenarios comes in handy. “If, Then” statements identify a trigger where you plan for a corresponding action, a common tool in behavior change interventions. Research shows when combined with action plans, this is an effective method in positive habit formation.

There are two ways to formulate your “If, Then” statements: The first is to commit to allowing certain triggers to automatically cue a desirable behavior—meaning less reliance on willpower alone. For example, “if it is 8 a.m., then I will work out” or “if I am getting out of bed or getting into bed, then I will stretch for 10 minutes.” 

The second way is to identify potential barriers or obstacles to exercise and strategize how you can confidently overcome them with reasonable solutions. For example, “if I miss a workout during the week, then I’ll add one over the weekend” or “if I sleep late, then I’ll do a 20-minute workout rather than a 30-minute one.” It not only gives you some flexibility in your plans, but it also boosts self-efficacy that you can accomplish your goals no matter what stands in your way.

Try It: Identify some reliable triggers such as a specific time of day or getting out of bed that you can ensure will happen on days you want to work out. Then identify what obstacles may pop up. Write down your if/then plans in a journal, on a sticky note, or in a digital note on your phone. Keep it in a place that’s within view: on your bathroom mirror, on your front door, on your phone’s home screen, or next to your bed to remind you of your goals when you’re tempted to waver.

5. Stack Your Habits

Habit-stacking has ripped through social media as a popular way to tackle adopting desirable behaviors. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, introduced the idea of habit-stacking as a means of changing behavior by pairing current habits with new ones that would further enhance your well-being. Research in the neurobiology of habit formation suggests you can build new neural pathways in the brain around already programmed behaviors. This simple way of tacking on a positive habit with another one brings in that automatic nature of habit formation, allowing you to think less and still accomplish your goals. Some examples of habit-stacking include:

  • After I turn my morning alarm off, I will drink a glass of water.
  • After I make my bed, I will put my sneakers on for a run. 
  • After putting away my Tonal bench, I will do five slow repetitions of a lower back stretch with hands on the bench.

Try It: Think of a habit you perform day in and day out without much thought. Then, brainstorm another desirable habit you are trying to acquire that you can link to the current habit either during or directly after. Visualize the relationship: After (current habit), I will (new habit)—then practice, practice, practice.

It’s essential to understand small ways that habits can become part of who you are and your daily rituals. You can apply these strategies not only to your exercise sessions but also to other health-related activities such as trying to sleep and wake at the same time or enjoying your meals around the same time. Often, habit formation is highly individualized, so tune into what works for you and how you feel when you complete the behavior and then use that intrinsic motivation to keep reinforcing the behavior.

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