Creating a Lasting Fitness Habit

I seem to be getting my act together lately on the fitness front and have recently been spending a bit of time thinking about why that is.

Before I get into it, a short disclaimer.

Certainly taking a bit of a break from work has made things much easier (although I don’t think it is necessarily the biggest contributor). Undoubtedly in the future I will run into challenges such as time management, dealing with periods of long hours and stress, travel etc. However I do feel there are a three things that have clicked for me recently which I hope you find useful.

1. You need a REAL purpose

Today I am more focused and engaged on my health than I have ever been. There is just something different about how I feel about my health now.

I strongly believe that good health is the cornerstone to everything we are able to do in life and it’s frankly stupid (and dangerous) to not take it seriously. How we’re able to enjoy time with family and friends, travel, work, earn money, help others etc. All of these are restricted when we are not in good health.

Sounds common sense, so how does this differ from how I felt before?

Until now I was more focussed on tangible results (appearance, weight, bodyfat, specific goals etc.). Upon reflection these things were never really strong enough reasons to consistently stick with the habit (that’s what I mean by needing a real purpose). Whilst some of those things are still somewhat important to me, my main focus now is simply being in good health so that I can enjoy life to the fullest, for as long as possible.

A small, but good example is flossing. I’ve lost count the number of times my dentist has asked me how my flossing was going and my answer was ‘it isn’t’. Despite her emphasising how it will help reduce problems with my teeth as I go through life, it felt awkward and I always put it off.

But I now floss every night without fail and have done for the last few months. Why have I been able to do this and not before? I am simply now very aware of doing everything I can to avoid a situation where I need big work done on my teeth (I really do not like going to the dentist).

You need a real purpose for why you want to create change. Not something you read or you heard someone else say – something that means enough to you. If you have that it will give you the willpower, motivation and determination to stick with new habits. Without a strong purpose, it will always be tough to create consistent and sustainable habits.

Take some time to really consider why it is you are trying to establish a habit or create change and once you become clear on what that is, keep it in the forefront of your mind as much as possible.

2. Keep things simple and be flexible

This has been huge for me.

I tend to be a perfectionist so when I start new things my first steps are to research it thoroughly and then lay out the absolutely perfect plan. Nine times out of ten it’s not realistic to stick to and the first time I miss a part of it (usually quite early on) I get super frustrated and beat myself up for failing – usually ending in me giving up.

A couple of examples with my running recently.

I downloaded a half marathon training plan and laid out a comprehensive schedule of running for the next 10 weeks in a good spreadsheet. I think I missed the third run and started to get wound up at my inability to stick with it. It was like the whole thing was now screwed.

Then I hurt my back and had to take 4-5 days off running. That totally screwed up the schedule further and I continued to beat myself up about it.

I was losing sight of the fact that despite these things, I had made real progress in the last month and my goal of running a half marathon in April was still well attainable.

Recently I took a step back from things as it was obvious the schedule wasn’t really serving me very well. I came to the conclusion that the schedule had just a few key principles I needed to keep in mind.

  • run approx 15-20 miles a week
  • 1 long, easy pace run
  • 2 shorter runs – a mix of quicker pace and some sprinting
  • 3 or 4 days of rest before the big event

So now I just take it a day at a time and keep the above in mind. I’ve let go of the complicated, perfect schedule and simplified it to just a few principles. And what would you know I am actually starting to now enjoy running for what it is and am running more consistently, longer and faster than I ever had.

A good example of keeping things simple and being flexible was today I set out to run 4 or 5 miles, depending on how I felt with perhaps an 8 mile or so run at the weekend. Only today I ended up running 10 miles which is a personal best by miles (literally 4!). Things just felt so good I decided to just keep going! As a result I will now rest tomorrow and Friday and do a short run for pace at the weekend. I no longer have to worry about messing up a perfect plan as I am sticking to a few key principles only.

Often a perfect plan or our own expectations come to bite us early on when creating a new habit. Particularly when you’re starting, try and keep things simple, take small consistent steps and be flexible. And don’t beat yourself up every single time you screw up – keep the bigger picture in mind.

3. Pushing through early discomfort

The early stages of doing something new can be tough and this is probably most relevant for fitness habits.

We’re often not very good at it (we’re only just learning after all) and its normally physically uncomfortable as our strength, skill and endurance are at a beginners level.

Again, two examples (one of them is running again, sorry!).

One month ago I really didn’t enjoy running and wondered if I ever could. Within the first mile I was out of breath, my legs felt heavy and my calves and hips would ache for days afterwards. Fast forward just 6 weeks, I am now able to run 4-5 miles with ease which means I am now actually starting to enjoy the run. I’m starting to take in scenery, do some thinking and also push myself to achieve personal bests. I had to slog through 3 or 4 weeks of frankly being quite crap at it and not really liking it, but because I pushed through that discomfort I can now enjoy it and have established the habit.

Second example, crossfit. I started about a month ago (shameless shout out to CrossFit Stags & Does) and two things kept eating away at me and were very uncomfortable. The workouts simply kicked my ass (still do and always will to be honest, but I’m nearly beyond feeling sick every session!) and secondly many of the olympic movements just felt so awkward to me I wondered if I would ever be able to master them. Fast forward 3 or 4 weeks and I am now starting to turn a corner with things like clean and jerk, snatch, kipping pull ups etc. I still have some way to go but I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and I’ve reached the point where my overall progress and how I feel in the moment outweighs any discomfort left.

Simply put, you just have to grind through it, remembering your purpose and knowing it will get easier and better.

Leo from ZenHabits has written some great stuff on discomfort, including this article here – Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe

Wrap up

In the last months I’ve been able to establish several fitness habits – drinking 2 litres of water daily, flossing, running, crossfitting and eating healthy.

Previously I have failed to establish any of these consistently and I believe a strong purpose, keeping things simple, being flexible and noticing / pushing through discomfort have been the big differences.

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