Image Credit: Shutterstock

The new year is here and so are resolutions to exercise more. Google searches for gyms typically spike in January, and gym membership also increases.

While many people will start an exercise routine this week, the hard part will be sustaining it. Creating a lasting exercise habit takes time, experts say.

“We’re built to want instant gratification over delayed reward,” said Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the book “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.” “And most good habits are about delaying some gratification in order to do a thing that’s good for you.”

Motivation for exercise can come in many different forms. Here is some advice from experts on how to build sustainable change.

1. Set specific goals

Having a resolution to exercise is just the starting point. It’s helpful to have specific goals and then make an actionable plan.

“Be specific about when you will do it: Where will you do it? How will you get there?” Milkman said. “Research shows that when we make our goals really concrete and bite size, it’s more effective.”

New Year’s resolutions are often aspirational, but not specific enough to convince someone to change their behaviour, said Charles Duhigg, author of the book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”

“What is really effective is having a plan,” he said. “And a plan should be specific. It should have a specific goal, like, ‘I’m going to run a marathon in November.’ And that means that I’m going to start a training calendar that I’ve already downloaded that starts in February.”

2. Find your ‘why’

Michelle Segar, a researcher at the University of Michigan and health coach, believes the first thing that people need to do is think about their history with exercise and identify whether their approach has been working.

Segar tells her clients to “find your why.” While people often start exercising to lose weight or get healthier, that approach often is not enough to “motivate ongoing exercise,” Segar said.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Instead, try finding a more meaningful “why,” such as focusing on the positive feelings you experience from an activity, said Segar, author of the book, “The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise.”

Segar suggests would-be exercisers try reframing exercise and movement as something that can “instantly help them feel better and help them better tend to the people and projects they care most about.”

3. Avoid ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking

Rigidity and perfectionism are often the enemy to building an exercise habit.

In Milkman’s research on flexible versus more rigid habits and routines, she found that individuals who were more flexible in the timing of their workouts were more likely to keep going to the gym than the rigid group.

“We basically find that rigid habits are a problem,” Milkman said. The reason is that people who are more rigid in their thinking often don’t have backup plans. People who allow for “more variability in their routine” are more likely to build an exercise habit, she said. “When they run into a bump in the road, they still go to the gym.”

Segar notes that “all-or-nothing thinking” gets in the way of achieving your goals.

“Someone might say, gosh, I just cannot go to the gym, but I can walk around the block,” Segar said. “The formula for helping more people sustain a physically active life is giving them permission to be flexible with what they do, and to choose to have a menu of different activities that they can order from.”

4. Bundle your workout with something fun

Exercise can and should be fun, and people tend to repeat things they enjoy. You can make exercise more enjoyable through a technique Milkman calls “temptation bundling.” Link exercise to activities that you enjoy. For example, binge a TV show while using the treadmill at the gym.

Milkman also recommends exercising with a friend. Studies have shown that people enjoy working out when they do it with friends and feel accountable to someone.

“The reality is what motivates us is we enjoy the experience,” Milkman said. “So thinking about habits, we repeat things that we enjoy more. Persistence is how you build a habit. The more you do it, the more automatic it becomes the more you stick with it. So it’s a nice reinforcing cycle.”

5. Be patient. Habits take time.

It often takes months for habits to form in the gym, so remind yourself that you are trying to create a lifelong fitness habit.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

“There’s huge variation across people, but on average, it isn’t something that happens just like overnight, or over a couple of weeks,” Milkman said.

People should also take comfort that habits are getting stronger over time even if it doesn’t feel like things are getting easier, Duhigg said.

“Eventually, it’ll just feel automatic,” he said. “And in fact, once it becomes a habit, you probably won’t even notice that it is a habit.”

6. Motivate yourself with kindness

If you have trouble sticking to an exercise habit or routine, go easy on yourself. Your struggle may be because exercise feels like punishment, instead of something motivating.

Practicing self-compassion - which means being kind to yourself - can actually help you achieve your goals.

“We know from research that the number one reason people aren’t self-compassionate is because they are afraid it will undermine their motivation,” said Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

But that thinking is wrong, Neff said. A study under review found that when college athletes were taught to be more self-compassionate, their athletic performance improved, said Neff, author of the book “Fierce Self-Compassion.”

“Making changes with encouragement and kindness is a lot more effective than making change through criticism,” she said.

To practice self-compassion, think about how you would motivate a friend to help them achieve a goal.

“What types of things would you say to let them know that you believed in them, and that you were there to support them?” Neff said. “Then say something similar to yourself.”

And if you miss a few days or even a week or month of exercise, don’t beat yourself up.

“If you do fall off the wagon, which many do, that’s how goals work, we often don’t achieve them,” Milkman said. “That’s part of setting goals. There are other fresh starts around the corner. So don’t give up on yourself completely.”