How I (Finally) Built a Lasting Exercise Habit to Tackle Stress

Man running on a mountain path

Photo by Brian Erickson

For years, I struggled to build an exercise habit.

I knew exercise was essential for boosting productivity and lowering stress. But I struggled to build the consistency needed for meaningful results.

Last year, I finally cracked the code. By making four simple changes to my approach, everything clicked into place. I’ve been exercising regularly ever since.

Here are the four strategies that helped me finally build the habit:

1. Prioritising Injury Prevention

I realised I was carrying a lot of mental baggage about exercise.

After reading hundreds of forums and books on exercise, I had loads of exercise rules stuck in my brain:

Because of this baggage, I kept designing workout routines that were “pure” and “correct”. And then I’d get injured, setting myself back a few months. Even when I tried hard to perfect my technique, it still eventually broke me.

I finally accepted I’m not a professional athlete training for a sport.

I’m just a guy who wants to be fit, energetic and productive. So, I decided that my sole criterion for picking exercises was minimising the risk of injury. Here are some of the changes I made:

I still get minor niggles, but nothing that takes me off track for more than a day or so. This has been critical for building my lasting habit.

2. Exercising Every Day

The shift to exercising every day was a game changer.

My previous attempts to work out three times per week always failed. I could always convince myself that today wasn’t the right day to exercise, and tomorrow was a better choice. Before long, a string of missed days would kill my momentum and I’d give up again.

Some people are good at moderation, but that’s not me. Exercising every day means there is no choice to make. Every day I wake up at 6am, write for an hour and then exercise. It feels good to start the day with a physical win.

The key to consistent exercise is knowing your flaws and working around them. For me, it was about minimising choices.

3. Exercising in a Simple Pattern

Another thing that didn’t work for me was a weekly workout pattern.

The idea of running on Mondays, gym on Tuesdays, and so on, was too rigid. Inevitably, real life would intervene, and I would miss my Tuesday gym session. What then? Should I shuffle the whole week around, or skip that session? Is it OK to lift weights on two consecutive days to catch up? I wasn’t always sure.

These questions sound trivial, but they often caused my exercise habits to collapse. You are probably sensing the theme here – if it requires a lot of thought, it’s unlikely to happen.

My solution to this was adopting a very simple pattern:

The specific exercises aren’t important. The important thing is I can’t tell you what I’m doing next Monday. I just know that I follow this pattern, again and again. If I miss a day, I continue where I left off.

The simplicity and power of this approach are hard to fathom until you try it.

4. Playing the Long Game with Pain

With consistency as my goal, injuries are my number one enemy.

I’ve always known you shouldn’t ignore pain. But I’m always tempted to push further than I should when I feel a niggle. It seems unfair that I’m trying to be healthy, yet the universe punishes me with a twinged shoulder. This frustration can cause me to complete a workout I should have abandoned.

Now I play the long game. If I feel the smallest niggle, I stop. It’s no big deal to miss one exercise because I will be back again tomorrow. (Another benefit of daily exercise). If I feel a niggle more than once or twice a week, I consider getting physio or changing my exercise.

“No pain, no gain” is for amateurs.

Since making these changes to my exercise habits, I’m on a longer exercise streak than I’ve ever managed before. My energy levels are higher, despite me cramming more into my days (like an hour of writing). I’m also feeling a lot fitter, and less stressed.

If you’ve struggled to form an exercise habit, try adopting one or more of these approaches. It may help you find the consistency you’ve been looking for.