5 tips to building a fitness habit

For the month of July, I embarked upon a 30-day fitness challenge. I shared this on Instagram with a daily countdown and a few people joined in. My aim was to prioritise fitness for 30 days, in the hopes of building a habit. I decided to keep it simple and choose a workout that was not too strenuous, but also not too easy; and I would not increase the intensity or duration in the thirty days. I set the same time every day to exercise, and I set the workout length at 30 minutes only. So basically I planned to do the same workout, like clockwork, every day for thirty days; to ideally build a fitness habit. And; it didn’t work.

I didn’t exactly come out of it all fit and focused and in a fitness habit. I was actually tired and frustrated. Although I ended up working out considerably more than I did in previous months, this challenge made me realise that I have been taking the wrong approach to fitness. I was thinking I could get fit without a real plan or much thinking behind it. I was thinking “just do it and it will become a habit”.

Thankfully, I actually enjoy working out and I especially love how I feel after my workout. This challenge made me realise I needed to make some changes to my approach to getting fit to succeed in building fitness into my life. Here are my five tips for building a sustainable fitness habit:

1.  What is your fitness “why”?

Why do you want to get fit? You need to know this, because it is the one thing that will keep you focused on the days you don’t want to work out. This is especially hard in winter when you are cold and feeling cosy and snug and don’t want to move.

My personal reasons for wanting to be fit is for brain health and to prevent disease. We all know that exercise is good for us, but it has been scientifically proven that if daily exercise is incorporated into your life it can contribute to the prevention of cancer, alzheimers and other chronic diseases. When you do load-bearing exercises using your upper legs (the biggest muscle in your body), it sends signals to the brain and stimulates it. Another reason many people, including myself, love about exercising, is just how good you feel after your workout. Your body releases endorphins, and you feel happy and energised. Another surprising benefit I found was that that I sleep considerably better on the days that I exercise; and I even wake up feeling better and well rested the following morning.

2. Set a goal and action plan

Now that you know why you want to need to exercise, you need to set a realistic goal so that you have something to work towards. Perhaps you want to run a marathon or climb Mt. Kilomanjaro or do a triathlon.

You should set your goal and then you need to map it out. Work out your timeline and your action steps to get to  your goal. Be specific with your action plan. If you are planning to run a 10km race in 8 weeks, then write down exactly what you need to do each day for those eight weeks. To stay motivated, you could include mini-milestones to your main goal and reward yourself at each milestone. This will hack your motivation and keep you focused until you reach the end.

3. Make an appointment with fitness

This is very important. You physically need to put this in your daily planner or calendar. Although I prioritised fitness for the month of July, I realised that I really was not prioritising it in each day. I would set a time, in my mind, but not stick to it. Then I would miss it and end up exercising later when I could find time. This is not ideal, because it starts to feel like a chore and it is not a way to build a sustainable fitness habit.

If you are really struggling, I would suggest working with a personal trainer for a few months. This helps because you literally have an appointment with someone. The trainer also doubles up as your coach to motivate you. This really worked for me, you can read my blog post The benefits of using a personal trainer

4. Start small and make it fun and easy

Don’t try to do too much. As part of your action plan, you need to make it realistic and manageable and fun. Don’t overexert yourself or increase intensity too quickly because you may injure yourself. Trust me, I have been there. Earlier this year I was in full-on exercise mode, running on the treadmill as part of my running program. I felt so good (and superfit) and decided to swim laps as well. So I ran (which was fine because it was part of my program) then I immediately swam 45 minutes of laps in the pool. A total of about 90 minutes of exercise, when I was usually only doing 45 minutes. I was limping the next day. I injured my ligament in my knee and couldn’t train for weeks.

Sometimes it is tough to make exercise fun if you are new to it. You could try working out with friends. If you are working out in the gym, my tip on the treadmill is to listen to an audiobook or even watch Netflix. It can really make the time go quicker if you are a beginner and walking on a treadmill feels boring. You can also try to add variety into your workouts by trying a different sport like boxing or tennis to keep fit. You could also hike on the weekend to give yourself a workout and have fun with family and friends. You can read about my first family hike in Cape Town when we moved back last year and I was not that fit yet Our first family hike in Cape Town

5. Have a rest day

Initially I thought I should have no rest days because I am building a habit and I need to do the same thing each day to build the habit. But after these 30 days, I think it’s important to have a rest day when it comes to fitness. Sometimes you just need to recover physically, especially if you have done strength training or if you are new to fitness. I felt that when I didn’t factor in a rest day, I would get mentally drained from thinking about exercising every single day.  I would suggest that you plan your fitness schedule for the week and plan your rest day. Then take that day and reward yourself for exercising and looking after your body for that week!

I really hope these tips help you to get started with your fitness journey. My reward for completing the 30 day fitness challenge and one year of healthy living (I started my journey to health in September 2018), will be two sessions with my personal trainer for the month of August, and I will also be trying out a boxing class in Cape Town with health and fitness blogger Janine Papier. Excited!

Siham Arieff
Siham Arieff

Siham is a wellness writer, stroke survivor, mom of 3 and coffee lover on a health and fitness journey who recently relocated back home to Cape Town, South Africa.

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