How to make exercise a habit that sticks
A compelling study recently suggested that physical activity may be more important than diet if you’re trying to lose weight then keep it off.
The simple takeaway is: be more physically active.
But what’s simple in theory is often hard in practice, as known to everyone who’s ever vowed to go jogging or get to the gym three times a week, then somehow ended up on the couch.
That study was co-authored by Danielle Ostendorf, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, who has looked into what motivates people to keep physically active.
“Based on my research findings and work done by other researchers, we think that finding activities that you enjoy is the key for adopting and maintaining an exercise behaviour,” she told Coach.
She shared three big recommendations for improving motivation for physical activity:
- “Move in ways that make you feel good.” Maybe you didn’t stick to your three-jogs-a-week resolution because you actually hate jogging, so you might have better luck lifting weights, or doing an aerobics class, or something else you enjoy doing. If you loathe lacing up your runners, also remember that — it can just be moving more in your everyday life.
- “Focus on immediate benefits from exercise — improved mood, sleep, less anxiety, etc — over long-term benefits.”
- Reframe exercise as something that gives rather than takes. “Taking care of yourself doesn’t have to conflict with your other important priorities, like being a parent, or working hard at your job,” Ostendorf suggested. “Instead we can think of self-care — activity, nutrition, sleep — as helping us with the things that matter most to us.” For example, moving more, sleeping better and eating healthier may give you more patience with your children at home.
Ostendorf also offered some other important strategies for people wanting to lose weight and keep it off:
- Self-monitoring your nutrition, physical activity, and weight. There are dozens of free apps to measure these sorts of things, but it can also be as simple as snapping a photo of what you eat, for example. “By keeping track of things, a person can become more mindful of their health choices throughout the day,” Osterndorf said.
- Setting realistic, timely goals. I want to finish a 5km fun run in three months is a clearer goal than I want to get fitter, for example. (Here are more strategies for setting successful goals.)
- Surrounding yourself with supportive people.
- Practicing self-compassion. “Be kind to yourself and give yourself a break if you mess up,” Ostendorf said. “It is good to think of weight loss as an opportunity for learning.”
Lastly, Ostdendorf added that there are more detailed strategies in the book No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness by Michelle Segar.
“I would highly recommend this for people interested in making sustainable changes in their health,” she said.