How to master your New Year’s exercise routine

With the start of a new year comes a new flood of ‘fitspo’ quotes: ‘Nothing worth having comes easy,’ ‘Do something today that your future self will thank you for,’ and so on. Motivating? Yes. Life-changing? Not really.

Increasingly, scientific research and experts are proving that it’s habits, not motivation, that will change our behaviour for the long-term. ‘Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision-making and from using self-control, because they become a natural part of your lifestyle,’ says Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits Of Our Everyday Lives (Two Roads, £9.99). So, want to make your new fitness habits stick? Read on…

Plan for action…
The old adage, ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’ can refer to burpees just as it can to business plans. It turns out that writing down a specific plan makes all the difference when it comes to building new habits. Indeed, just giving some thought to your workout regime makes it more likely that you’ll stick to it; US researchers found that when they asked people how much they were planning to exercise, they clocked up 138 per cent more activity time than the control group.

…and for stumbling blocks
But planning isn’t simply masterminding success, it’s anticipating obstacles, too. Rubin recommends coming up with ‘if-then’ scenarios, which means that even when we’re faced with a challenge, we’ve already decided how to behave. Say you prefer to work out at home, but your phone always poses a distraction – decide ‘if I exercise at home, then I will leave my mobile in another room’. And so the obstacle is planned for, and the behaviour is set.

Don’t dream too big
It might seem like perfect sense to stick pictures of you at ‘goal weight’ on your fridge or try to motivate yourself to get on the treadmill with dreams of finally running a marathon, but it turns out that fantasising could actually work against you building workout habits. A study from the University of California suggests that visualising the process of what needs to be done to achieve your goal, rather than the end goal itself, is far more likely to make habits stick. So, picturing yourself packing your gym kit the night before, rather than dreaming of those abs you’re aiming for, will fortify the habit in your mind.

Diary the deed
Finding yourself constantly dropping exercise because some more attractive alternative pops up at short notice? ‘Bookmarking your calendar in advance is key to making habits stick, especially for those of us who have trouble saying no,’ says Rubin. ‘Scheduling one activity makes that time unavailable for anything else.’ Whether you’ve found a regular gym class or want to go for a 60-minute run three evenings a week, block the time out on your calendar. ‘If you’re asked to do anything that would interfere with it, respond with “I’m not available at that time.” Scheduling makes activities automatic, which builds habits,’ she adds.

Reward yourself
Yes, really. We can’t quite believe it either, but there’s scientific proof that treating yourself after exercise will make you much more likely to do it. ‘Research shows that every habit has three components,’ explains Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit (Random House, £9.99). ‘There’s the cue, which is a trigger for an automatic behaviour to start. Then a routine, which is the behaviour itself. Finally, a reward. The reward is really important because that’s how your brain essentially learns to latch on to a particular pattern and make it automatic.’ Maybe make it 15 minutes of relaxation rather than a chocolate bar every time, though.

Hattie Parish :