6 Mental strategies to turn exercise into a habit

Working out regularly is good for you.  Not only keeps you in shape and feeling full of life, but it also helps relieve stress and prevent chronic diseases.

But if you’re like most people, you probably struggle to make exercise part of your daily life. Instead, you’re good at making excuses to skip your gym time.

If you want to put a stop to that and make exercise a daily habit—as in something you do regularly, then you’re in the right place.

In today’s post, I’ll share with you some strategies and psychological tricks to make it easier to stick with an exercise habit.

Why I’m doing this?

Because a lot of my readers and friends admit that they’d love to work out more regularly to reach their fitness goals, but they can’t form the habit for one reason or the other.

So I figured to delve a little deeper into what worked the best for me over the past few years. And believe me, it’s no rocket science. It’s simple once you start applying it in your life.

  1. Create A Ritual

Your exercise plan should become so ingrained that it becomes a daily ritual for you—just like brushing your teeth and washing your face before bed.

When your exercise routine becomes a ritual, all the thinking and guessing is taken out of the equation.

For example, if you set the goals running three times a week in the morning, you can come up with a ritual that includes getting up, doing your toiletries, and making a cup of coffee, put on your running clothes, lacing up your running shoes, and hitting the road.

2. Do it Early

The early bird catches the worm, as the saying goes—catching a sweat is no exception.

Research shows that people who exercise first thing in the morning tend to stay better consistent with their training program.

That isn’t the whole story.

Research out of the University of  North Texas revealed that exercising first thing in the morning may help you improve more quickly than later in the day.

It’s a matter of priorities. You’ll be less likely to get distracted in the morning when the rest of the world, especially your children (if you have any), are still asleep.

Pound the pavement or hit the gym in the morning when your willpower is high, and you’ll reap the rewards all day.

To make this a reality, set your alarm, put it somewhere it away from reach, lay out everything you need for our morning workout, then go to sleep.

3. Schedule Your Sessions

Still having trouble sticking to your workout routine?

Build your workouts into your schedule.

Habits are just activities you repeat over and over. If you keep scheduling your workouts, you’ll help speed up the process of habit formation.

Take out your calendar, your phone, or whatever you use to keep tabs on your daily to-do list and schedule your sessions. Next, treat your workout “date” just as you would any other meeting or important appointment—non-negotiable.

Treating your sessions with the same priority just like you’d with an important task, from taking care of your kids to your job build the mindset that is not a hobby or a pass time.

Ideally, you’d want to work out three to five times a week, doing different activities in each session.

If you want to start running, give yourself a time and place for it, then put in on your calendar, just like any other event or meeting.

4. Make it Fun

It’s going to be hard to stick to exercise when it’s a drag.

Choose something you like. Of course, you don’t have to love it, but it should be the type of exercise you can do with little discomfort or pain.

You got a virtually endless pool of options for moving your body and exercising, so don’t give up if you’ve decided that running or yoga isn’t for you.

Find ways to make building an exercise habit as enjoyable as possible. Train with a friend, join group classes, go on long hikes in nature.

5. Reward Yourself

Rewarding yourself will make exercise addictive.  This tells your brain that the behavior is worth repeating since it results in pleasure or the avoidance pain. It’s the classic carrot or stick approach.

The purpose is to reward yourself every single time you exercised—or managed to stick to working out for a set period—so that you start to crave that reward.

Common rewards include:

  • A nice healthy dessert
  • Reading your favorite book
  • Spending time on your favorite websites
  • Taking a long nap
  • Going to a nice restaurant
  • Netflixing your favorite show
  • Watching your favorite show
  • Getting a message
  • A glass of wine
  • A hot bath
  • Paying yourself for every workout completed
  • Reading a new fiction book

See, it doesn’t have to be complicated nor expensive.

As long as it’s something you enjoy doing—unless it’s junk food or any other unhealthy behavior—then know yourself out.

6. Focus on the Habit First & the Results Later

This is one of the most important, yet elusive, keys to building long-lasting healthy habits.

People are often so focused on the results—whether it’s losing weight, building muscles, getting rich, you name it—that they end up quitting when the desired goal doesn’t happen soon enough.

Here’s the truth.

I believe this is the wrong approach when you’re still struggling to build the habit. This doesn’t mean that I’m against setting goals (already written a guide here), but the behavior always comes first.

Goals are vital for getting what you want, but they won’t push you forward nor lead to success. Focus on the behavior instead.

This shift in thinking will help you make the transition from being outcome-oriented (I want to lose 20 pounds) to being process-oriented (I want to run four times a week).

What matters when you start building new healthy habits is sticking to them to, not the result. You’ll be better off focusing on the system rather than the goal.

After establishing the exercise habit, it’ll be much easier on you to set goals—the right goals—and go after them the proper way.


The key to building an exercise habit is to make as easy as possible to do your workout. Go for exercises that you like, keep your workouts comfortable and simple,  and focus on showing up every day—even if you do not see any progress.

Taking the first step is often the hardest, so the easier you can make that, the more successful you’ll be. The rest is just detail, as the saying goes.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for reading my post.

Keep running strong.

David D.