Fitness Hacks: How To Make Exercise a Habit That Sticks

Key Points

  • A successful, long-term exercise program requires patience, planning, perseverance, self-discipline, and actually enjoying your workout.

  • It takes at least 21 days and several outside factors to make exercise a habit. 

  • Fun group workouts help you learn how to make exercise a habit. 

Are you struggling to enjoy your workouts and maintain a consistent fitness routine? Do you want to learn how to make exercise a habit?

It starts with believing your desired habit is achievable. From there, keep your eyes locked on the benefits. Feeling better from the inside out is one of many rewards of learning how to make exercise a habit.

What Is a Habit?

A habit is an action, routine, or lifestyle you repeatedly and consistently perform. It’s an automatic response to your environment that feels like second nature. You don’t put much thought into a habit — your subconscious takes over and steers the ship. 

A habit has three key elements: a cue, a behavior, and a reward. The cue initiates the habit, the behavior is the habit, and the reward is the habit’s purpose. 

Cue: You’re sleepy and unmotivated. 

Behavior: You order your favorite coffee drink from Starbucks.

Reward: The first sip brings you delight, inspiration, and a magical energy buzz.

Woman working out

The longer and more consistently you repeat a habit, the deeper it becomes ingrained in your brain. Every time you feel tired, you resort to coffee. You despise the way your breath tastes after a meal, so you always pop a piece of gum into your mouth after. 

Ponder your morning ritual. Do you typically get ready in the same fashion every day? You shower, brush your teeth, do your hair and makeup, get dressed, and head out the door (in that order).

You don’t get dressed before hopping in the tub, right? You also don’t brush your teeth after applying makeup. That messes up your lipstick! 

Habits are a culmination of developed behavioral patterns. 

Consider how often you enter “autopilot mode.” You pull into your driveway after a long day, shut off your car’s engine, and suddenly wonder, “How the heck did I get here?” 

You hardly remember the drive home! That’s because you don’t have to think about necessary turns, exits, or stop signs. You subconsciously rely on your habitual instincts.

How Long Does It Take To Make Exercise a Habit?

The fitness industry pushes some programs promising to form healthy exercise habits in a week to 10 days. Surely it takes longer than seven days for a foreign (and seemingly unpleasant) behavior to stick around!

On average, scientific research claims that it takes 21 to 30 days of consistency to lock in a habit. There’s no universal timeframe. Habit formation varies depending on an individual’s personality, dedication, and circumstances. It may take less than two months or closer to 10 months to turn exercise into a habit. 

Forming a habit takes time, patience, discipline, and tenacity. How does it work? You enter a self-sustaining positive feedback loop where you successfully hit those three elements of a habit.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Repeating a specific action at the same time and place over an extended period sets the foundation for permanent change. When you feel weird not doing something, that’s when your behavior has become a habit.

How Do You Make Fitness a Habit That Sticks?

Fitness isn't supposed to feel like a constant struggle. It's meant to be enjoyable. No joke! Fitness can become as natural in your daily routine as driving your car, cooking a meal, or talking to a friend. 

Don't you want to have fun while losing weight, getting in better shape, and pursuing a healthier lifestyle? You can!

The 10 simple ways to make fitness a habit that sticks include the following:

Don’t Overdo It 

If you’re struggling to stick with a solo fitness regimen, start with 10 to 20 minutes per day. Nothing more, nothing less.

When you start small, you remove excuses such as not having enough free time to exercise or lacking access to a gym. All you really need is your body and a few feet of space.

Girl doing a plank exercise

New goals are exciting! You’re energetic, ambitious, and inspired heading into your first few workouts.

After a break from a regular exercise routine, you might want to start where you left off — even if it's been a few years. Take it slow and ease back into the swing of things.

The result of overdoing it? Instant burnout or injury which leads to disappointment, discouragement, and prematurely dropping out or quitting.

That initial burst of enthusiasm doesn’t last long. 

“We’re built to want instant gratification over delayed reward, and most good habits are about delaying some gratification in order to do a thing that’s good for you,” says college professor and author Katy Milkman

Instead of hitting the ground running, assess what your body can handle. Give your muscles time to adapt, grow, and recover. Condition your mind to enjoy movement and honor your new commitment. That may mean keeping your workouts short and sweet.

The hardest part is showing up. Check that box daily. Be consistent and persistent. 

Strategically Plan Your Cues

Schedule your workouts on a calendar for constant visual cues. Set reminders on your phone to ping you 30 minutes before your planned workout. 

Treat exercise like a mandatory meeting with yourself. If you don't skip important work calls (or that hair appointment you desperately need), don’t miss a workout either.

Identify and avoid triggers that tempt you to ditch exercise last minute.

Don’t have workout clothes with you? Always keep a fully stocked gym bag in your car.

Prefer to exercise in the morning? Lay out your attire the night before.

This mental hack hardwires your brain to feel motivated the moment you wake up.

Develop a workout ritual that puts you in the mood to exercise. Down a nutritious pre-workout snack or energy drink. Listen to your favorite playlist. Follow social media accounts that inspire you to chase your health and fitness goals.

Girl doing yoga

Design Your Workouts in Advance

Determine how often you intend to exercise — four to five days a week is a great starting point. Pick your workout type, intensity, duration, location, and time of day. Be as consistent as possible.

For example, you buy a Pilates studio membership. You decide to attend their 45-minute 6 p.m. class on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. You reserve Mondays and Saturdays for 20 to 30-minute outdoor morning runs. On Wednesdays and Sundays, you rest and recharge. 

Planning your exercise details and logistics prevents the crushing weight of decision fatigue. Last-minute stress destroys your motivation and willpower to exercise that day.

Reward Yourself Often

Don’t wait until you achieve a big, long-term fitness goal. Celebrate mini-victories along the way.

It could be completing a week’s worth of planned workouts or upping your exercise intensity. Maybe you hit a personal record or persevered to show up on an exceptionally hard day.

Treat yourself to a well-deserved glass of wine, massage, shopping trip, or brunch date with a loved one. Enjoy a guilt-free dessert or coffee after a sweat sesh!

Craving a small reward afterward motivates you to stay disciplined and put in the work. On top of the post-workout endorphin rush (that never gets old), you receive a double dose of happiness. That is a good way to make exercise a beloved part of your daily routine.

Woman doing ab exercises

Fall in Love With Your Workouts

Do what you love and love what you do. This phrase usually refers to career choices, but it also applies to your exercise activities. 

If a workout is miserable or boring, you shy away from it. It feels like a burden instead of a pleasure. When you truly enjoy your workouts, it is much easier to get "hooked" on exercise.

NASM-certified personal trainer Lauren Seib advises people to, “Find what speaks to you fitness-wise, and stop doing what you think you ‘should be doing.’ If you don’t love exercise, it won’t love you, and in turn, you won’t see the results you’ve been craving.

"Try out that new yoga class, hit the rock-climbing wall, or lace up those running shoes for the first time in months," Seib continues. "Enjoying exercise is half the battle.”

Fun workouts bring stability and excitement to your exercise routine.


You eagerly anticipate your next session. You also start viewing exercise as something you get to do, rather than something you have to do. 

Make It Impossible To Say No

Recognize repetitive obstacles in your life and be proactive. 

Is waking up early extremely challenging for you? Set your alarm clock on the far side of the room so you have no choice but to get out of bed. 

Annoying? Possibly. Effective? Absolutely. 

Commit to exercising with a friend so you’re accountable to more than just yourself.

Here’s a big one: Sign up for pre-paid fitness classes. Use 'em or lose 'em! Getting the most out of your hard-earned money is a powerful incentive. 

You know yourself better than anyone. Make it more of a pain and inconvenience to skip your workouts than it is to do them.

Try placing your gym bag and exercise materials on your couch. When you get home, you have a dilemma. Do you move your stuff to sit down, relax, and watch TV? Do you pick it up and follow through with your original intention to exercise?

Either way, you’re choosing to cancel or stay committed to your fitness routine.

Discover a Meaningful “Why”

Meaningful reasons to exercise go far beyond physical fitness. 

Regular workouts upgrade your energy, self-confidence, focus, and creativity. It also improves your mental health, promotes positive relationships, and reduces stress and anxiety

Going for a run

If you battle a chronic condition or disease, exercise relieves symptoms and increases your chance of remission.

Every time you sweat, experience the gratification of creating a healthier, happier you! The benefits flow into every other sphere of your life. 

Above all else, pay attention to how good it feels to work on you. 

Use Temptation Bundling

Temptation bundling is a clever mental hack that pairs a “want behavior” with a “should behavior.” Imagine: You want to listen to your favorite podcast. You should exercise for 30 minutes. The solution? Do both at the same time.

By connecting a satisfying indulgence with a less enjoyable activity, the task becomes more gratifying. After a while, your brain learns to correlate immediate pleasure with healthier behavior. When you enjoy something, you’re naturally motivated to repeat it. 

Be Self-Compassionate

Avoid being too hard on yourself. Like everyone else, your journey has good days and bad days.

Don’t give up on the bad days. Offer yourself grace, kindness, and patience instead. Keep your self-talk positive.

If you don't dare say some critical comment to a friend, don't say it to yourself. That goes for how you look, what you eat, and when you experience an occasional slip-up. 

Continue to have faith in your progress, even if you have to take a step back. Growth isn’t linear. It’s an up-and-down roller coaster.

When you adopt this philosophy, you react to setbacks more constructively. 

Try Group Workouts

For many, working out with other people beats exercising alone. Group workouts provide extra fun, motivation, accountability, and camaraderie.

They also foster an addictive positive feedback loop.

Due to your hyped-up classmates (cue), you push yourself to do one more rep, mile, minute, or victory (behavior). This feeling floods your system with dopamine (reward).

It gets better. Modern studios design their workout spaces so participants feel like they’re at the club! Party music, strobe lights, bright colors, and positive vibes fill the atmosphere.

The real kicker? Group settings inspire you to work harder than you do when training solo. Grit and passion are contagious.

You avoid feeling stressed, confused, or insecure about creating your own workouts. Show up, work out, and leave feeling better — albeit more sore and tired — than when you started.

Group exercise class

Fitness Is a Lifestyle

Fitness is so much more than a workout activity: It’s a lifestyle.

Motivation is in abundance when you start your journey but usually dwindles after a few weeks or months. Through fitness highs and lows, habit is what keeps you going. 

How do you train your “habit muscle” to love fitness? A good start is to review the 10 tips listed above and incorporate that advice into your life.

Take it one day at a time and trust the process. You can do this!

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