Make Exercise a Habit: The Truth About Motivation and How to Harness It

Learn what the science of behavior change can tell you about how to build a successful exercise habit

Published Date: Nov 14, 2023

Make Exercise a Habit: The Truth About Motivation and How to Harness It

Learn what the science of behavior change can tell you about how to build a successful exercise habit

Published Date: Nov 14, 2023

Make Exercise a Habit: The Truth About Motivation and How to Harness It

Learn what the science of behavior change can tell you about how to build a successful exercise habit

Published Date: Nov 14, 2023

Make Exercise a Habit: The Truth About Motivation and How to Harness It

Learn what the science of behavior change can tell you about how to build a successful exercise habit

Published Date: Nov 14, 2023
Table of Contents

It’s a basic law of nature. And you can probably still hear the drone of your science teacher’s voice: A body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest stays at rest, unless some other force acts upon it. 

That last part about the outside force is key. It’s true for everything in the universe: stars, planets, and people. Especially when building an exercise habit.

We all need a force to move us from rest to healthy movement. It’s called motivation. But even when you know that moving more would be good for you, it can be hard to build the motivation when exercise isn’t (yet) a habit. 

So let’s look at what behavioral science has to tell us about motivation — and how you can harness it to build a healthy exercise habit.

About Our Author

Rachel Foster, PhD
Behavioral Scientist
Dr. Foster is a Hinge Health behavioral scientist who applies principles of behavioral science to help members develop health, fitness, and wellness habits.

Mind the Gap

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious: Building a new exercise habit can be challenging. Behavior scientists call it the intention-behavior gap. We may have great intentions and say that we want to make a change, but we struggle to put it into action. When our behaviors are out of alignment with our intentions, there’s a gap between what we truly desire for ourselves and the life that our actions are creating for us. That contradiction can be frustrating, uncomfortable, and discouraging. 

How We Deal: Avoidance and Approach

You might try to compensate for that discomfort with avoidance, which can take a lot of different forms. It can mean forgetting all about exercise or deciding it’s not for you. Or coming up with multiple reasons why it won’t work. Or letting a self-defeating loop run in your head: I know it’s going to take a lot of work and I’m probably going to fail, so what’s the point? Avoidance is actually a normal part of the process of developing a new habit. Almost everyone contemplating a change experiences it, to one degree or another. 

The opposite of avoidance is approach. That’s when you embrace a new habit with all-in enthusiasm and energy. People who adopt an approach strategy pursue a new habit aggressively, but often have unrealistic (and ultimately unsustainable) expectations: I’m going to get fit in a month! or I’m going to hit the gym every single day. The pitfall of an approach strategy is that it can foster all-or-nothing thinking that’s quickly demolished by real life. 

Most people have a mix of approach and avoidance thoughts and behaviors when it comes to any new habit — which can feel even more confusing. One part of you wants to dive in while other parts of you are feeling hesitant and avoidant. There may be aspects of the new habit that are attractive and desirable (getting in shape, improving your mood and self-image, better health, etc.). At the same time, other aspects might make you want to run and hide (the effort of starting an exercise routine, the challenge of exercise itself, etc.). 

Practice Self-Compassion

How do you work with your own unique mix of feelings when building an exercise habit? Start with self-compassion. If we’re able to be kind to ourselves and understand that changing our behavior and building new habits is difficult at first but worth it in the long-term, we’re more likely to succeed and reach our goals.

Kristin Neff, PhD, is a well-known psychologist who writes about the importance of self-compassion. As she says in Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself:

“Remember that if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear.”

Self-compassion can also mean giving yourself credit for the work that has to take place before you begin any habit. Behavioral scientists recognize that before you take action, you need to think about and prepare for the action. Preparation includes thinking about how to set up your environment for success and planning how you will schedule time. That mental work is important. Even though no “progress” may have happened yet (you haven’t started your exercise habit), you’re still doing important work (like reading this article!) to move yourself toward your goal.  

Rethinking Motivation

Some behavior experts question whether motivation is as important as we think when it comes to habits. Psychologist Stephen C. Hayes, PhD, suggests that you actually don't have to feel like doing something to do it. The doing can come first, and the feeling can follow:  

“Motivation rarely works like people think it does. We don’t suddenly feel motivated to do certain things and then jump into action. Instead, it’s more likely to work the other way around: we get started doing something, and then we feel motivated to continue doing that exact thing,” he says. “Motivation to exercise is often the result of a few previous sessions of exercising…This means two things: first, don’t wait for motivation before you get started. And second, just get started. Do something. Anything that will get the ball rolling.”

A Habit Action Plan

So maybe what you really need (even more than motivation) is an exercise habit action plan. 

Many of our daily activities are habits or routines that we perform almost without thinking. You probably prepare your morning coffee, shower, brush your teeth, and drive to familiar places almost on autopilot. An action plan can help you make exercise an automatic habit; something that you do almost without thinking. Making it automatic works like a safety net to ensure you continue to exercise during natural (and inevitable) dips in motivation. 

That's why our Hinge Health program encourages all members to set up a weekly goal for exercise therapy sessions in our app. We know members who do this are more likely to stick with their workouts.

Motivation for any behavior naturally ebbs and flows, so if you rely only on motivation to drive you, you’re likely to fail. Habit expert James Clear maintains that motivation is actually a less reliable way to establish a new behavior than developing a habit and systems to support it. Whether your initial motivation level is zero or 60, an exercise habit action plan can help you make your intentions a reality. What might it look like? 

  • Make a plan and write it down. Taking the time to write down exactly what type of exercise you plan to do and where makes your commitment real. It also removes any “wiggle room” from your plan. The more specific you can be, the better. Setting specific goals and writing them down has been shown to increase the likelihood of success.

  • Build it into your day. It’s easier to stick with an exercise habit if it’s built into the routine of your day. It could be a consistent, scheduled workout — say, a session before breakfast or a walk or run right before dinner. But it might also look like: taking the stairs, parking farther away from your destination, walking during meetings or breaks, taking stretch breaks, and more. The newest research shows that exercise benefits are cumulative. You don’t have to exercise for one long, continuous session. You can sneak short bouts of activity, or movement snacks, into your day and see the same benefits.

  • Schedule it. Blocking off time on your calendar serves as a daily reminder for your exercise habit and makes it easier to reserve that time and hold yourself accountable for it. When choosing a time of day, consider your chronotype, your natural preference for when to be active. For example: Are you a morning person or a night owl?

  • Use reminders. Your alarm clock can serve as a reminder if you exercise in the morning. But you can also use visual cues (notes and objects) in your space. And you can set alarms on your phone to remind you of scheduled workout times or activity breaks throughout your day.

  • Start small. Realistic goals (say, two or three exercise sessions a week) are easier to achieve. When you achieve a small goal, it builds your confidence and willingness to set new, bigger ones.

  • Make it fun. If you struggle to build movement into your life, ask yourself a few questions about what might make exercise more enjoyable. What are you naturally curious about? Is there a sport or activity that you’ve considered but haven’t tried yet? Instead of a chore, how can movement be something that you actually enjoy? People often get stuck thinking that exercise has to look a certain way (running on a treadmill or lifting weights). But there are hundreds of ways to be active. The point is to find something that is inherently fun and interesting to you. 

  • Try “temptation bundling.” This is when you pair a task with another enjoyable activity. You can boost your motivation by watching a favorite show or listening to your favorite podcast or music while you exercise.  

  • Find your “Goldilocks” zone. You want exercise to be challenging but doable. If it’s too easy or boring, it may not hold your attention and enthusiasm (and might not improve your fitness, either). If it’s too hard, you might struggle to stick with it. This applies to logistics, too. If your goal is to go to the gym every day but it requires a 30-minute drive and adds hours to your day, you’re less likely to stay committed. Choose activities that are convenient to work into your schedule and physically doable.  

  • Set up for success. Your environment plays a big role in sustaining your motivation. Use it to your advantage by incorporating visual cues and reminders like leaving your yoga mat out where you can see it, or setting out your exercise clothes the night before so you can jump right into your workout in the morning. If you have room, a dedicated exercise space can be both convenient and motivating — especially if you use it as a place to post your (written!) goals.

  • Make it social. Many people find exercise more enjoyable when moving with others. Join a gym or find a partner or group to exercise with, if you prefer not to exercise alone. Another benefit: your exercise buddy can also serve as an accountability partner, to help you stay on track with your goal.

  • Track your progress. Just like writing down your goals, there’s power in seeing the evidence of your efforts. Tracking your progress on paper or in a notes or fitness app can help motivate you to continue working toward your goal. (Hinge Health does this for you by celebrating consistent streaks of exercise sessions.)

  • Reward yourself. Research suggests that regular reinforcement is a powerful way to set yourself up for success. Pick a small thing that you can do to reward yourself for reaching your goal each day. It doesn’t have to be costly or take a lot of time — just something that reminds you of your success. Some possibilities: watching a favorite show, playing a game on your phone, enjoying your morning coffee, taking a relaxing bath, etc. Reinforcing yourself with rewards increases the likelihood that you’ll continue your habit. 

  • Visualize. It may sound corny, but taking the time to imagine yourself reaching your goal is a powerful way to build motivation. Visualization gets your brain ready to do what you’re envisioning, activates positive emotions, and helps clarify your goals. 

  • Be flexible. The messiness of life will interfere with your plans. Maybe a sick child or a work deadline meant you missed your scheduled workout. Anticipating when life gets in the way of your habits lets you prepare with a “plan B” that lets you squeeze some activity into your day, even if you can’t do it all. 

  • Celebrate small milestones. Like rewards, occasional celebrations to mark milestones in your habit progress can be powerful motivators. Do something special for yourself when you hit a week, a month, a year, etc. of consistent work toward your habit.

  • Get your self-talk ready. Consistency is more important than perfection when it comes to exercise habits, so don’t beat yourself up when the inevitable disruptions and ups and downs in motivation happen (remember self-compassion?). Have a few phrases of patience, forgiveness, and self-compassion ready to remind yourself that life is messy, no one is perfect, and you’re making progress in spite of normal setbacks.

Building a Habit Loop

Looking for an even simpler formula for habit formation? Habit expert James Clear distills it down to four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. If you want to change your behavior or form a new habit, he suggests asking yourself:

  • How can I make it obvious? (the cue). This is where schedules, reminders, and night-before preparations fit in.

  • How can I make it attractive? (the craving). If the activity is enjoyable or brings rewards, you’re more likely to keep it up.

  • How can I make it easy? (the response). Here’s where building it into your routine and choosing realistic goals and doable activities come in.

  • How can I make it satisfying? (the reward). Celebrating your progress, rewarding yourself daily, and seeing gains in your health and fitness all contribute to making your new exercise habit satisfying and rewarding.

Motivation often gets all the glory when we talk about forming a new exercise habit. But an exercise habit action plan just might be more important. After all, motivation will wax and wane, but a strong foundation of habit and routine can keep you exercising as surely as the sun rises — just like a law of nature.

Learn More About Hinge Health for Healthy Habits and Pain Relief

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. 

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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