I hate exercising.
If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know this is true. I detest it. I avoid it at all costs. If there is an option between going to the gym or doing something else, I will always pick the other option. Especially if it involves wine.
But, I know that exercise is the one thing missing in my wellbeing routine. I know that exercise is key to preventing chronic illness and can reduce my chances of developing breast cancer (even though I have the genetic mutation that increases my risk).
I know that exercise will help me stay mindful and present and keep my energy levels high. I know it will raise my good cholesterol and lower my bad cholesterol. I know it’s a part of self-care and taking care of my body and setting the foundation for my future health.
I know all of this. So why do I still avoid it?
The simple answer: because I’ve built a habit around it. I built a habit that goes: “wake up, go to work, come home from work, drink wine, eat dinner, go to bed.” I didn’t make room for exercise in this habit.
But habits, along with mindset, are the keys to better wellbeing.
Here are some tips on mindset and habits for powerful change:
Let’s start with mindset.
Mindsets are beliefs—beliefs about ourselves and our most basic qualities, like intelligence, talents and personality. Consider this: Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life?
If you believe that your traits are just givens, then you might have a fixed mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply static traits. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that.
In terms of wellbeing, people with a fixed mindset might believe that they only have so much energy, or they aren’t good at certain sports, or they don’t have good upper body strength.
This mindset keeps us in a state of low confidence. Think about it – if you worry that you’re not good enough or not strong enough, you’re living in a fixed mindset. Now, this doesn’t mean that you live your entire life with this mindset, but you believe that your talents in a specific area (like exercise) are fixed.
So what happens? We give up. We give up on trying an exercise we might eventually be good at. We give up on going to the gym or to a yoga studio (even though we’ve already paid). We give up on small things like taking the stairs or taking a walk outside.
And all of this giving up takes a toll on our mindset. By not exercising, we’ve reinforced the belief that we’re not good at it. So we continue to avoid it. And the vicious cycle continues.
Change your beliefs
Our mindset has a lot to do with our success in life. It can add to our sense of confidence or take away from it.
The cure for a fixed mindset is a growth mindset. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work— brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.
People with a growth mindset believe that their talents can be honed over time – through practice, learning from others or asking for help. So, whether we are good or bad at a certain exercise comes down to our mindset. If we shift to a growth mindset, we know that being “good” at exercise is the result of consistent practice and effort.
And, if you have a growth mindset, you’ll look for other ways to improve. You might hire a personal trainer for one-on-one support. You might join a fitness group or class with others you can learn from. You might reach out to a friend and ask her to be your running buddy. Because you believe that skill is only one piece of the puzzle, you’ll work hard and do whatever it takes to reach your goal.
The key to success is believing that you can improve a skill or learn more about a certain exercise if you want to. You can also think about ways that you can maximize your current talents and strengths. Even if you bomb a new exercise the first time, having a growth mindset means that you’ll try something new next time. You’ll keep trying until you find something that aligns with your skill level, or you’ll create something that gives you meaning and purpose.
You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine. — John C. Maxwell
Habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day. It’s a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day. According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40 percent of our behaviors on any given day.
Habits are often learned and therefore, can be changed.
It’s important to build good habits because these are our subconscious actions, emotions and behaviors. Deciding whether or not to exercise is a habit, or a choice, we make every day. If we want to start an exercise but we currently don’t have a good routine, then we need to understand why and how we formed that habit in the first place and replace those behaviors with positive patterns.
Willpower is like a muscle, meaning its energy is finite and can be easily drained from overexertion. We each have a “fuel tank” of willpower that can be spent, and once we use it all up, we are far more prone to give up and indulge in our whims, impulses, and base desires. This is why after a hard day’s work, all we want to do is sloth around on the couch and eat ice cream. Or why after a week of strict dieting it’s so easy to convince ourselves that eating an entire pizza isn’t such a big deal.
But the good news is: willpower is like a muscle. It can be exercised and practiced and built up. Just like going to the gym and building up strength and endurance, you can build up your discipline and willpower over a long period of time by setting and accomplishing a series of tasks on a consistent basis.
You can make your fuel tank bigger and bigger by draining it on a consistent basis. And you can also slow the loss of willpower. Studies show that putting yourself into a positive and/or competitive mood has restorative effects on willpower. This is why some people are able to focus and exercise for hours while others (like yours truly) struggle to get in even 15 minutes.
To get back to the point: willpower is finite, but it can be built and practiced. It’s what happens in the long-term that gets more complicated.
So why does this matter?
Because self-discipline is a series of healthy habits. Let’s stick with the diet example because that’s one most people fail at, at some point in their lives.
Most people approach the whole ordeal from a perspective of willpower. I will turn down desserts. I will skip breakfast. I will force myself to walk three times a week for 30 minutes. Then I’ll lose my 15 pounds and I’ll be happy. They’ve now depleted all of their willpower in order to reach an arbitrary goal instead of building a lifestyle habit.
It’s easy to make the right decisions based on willpower for one hour or one day or one week, but eventually we run out of decision-making gas and cave in to our cravings.
It’s not about willpower, but it’s rather about integrating the appropriate habits into your daily life. It’s not about the willpower to give up certain foods, but developing the taste for good ones. It’s not about forcing yourself to the gym every week as much as finding a way to actually look forward to it and enjoy it.
Most people exert their willpower on achieving temporary fixes whereas willpower should be expended on developing lifelong habits.
How to create healthy habits
Habit Stacking is a way to build a new habit into your life by stacking it on top of something you’re currently doing. For example, before you brush your teeth in the morning (current habit), you can meditate (new habit) for three minutes. This is the quickest way to add a new habit in your life. Because the current habit is strongly wired into your brain already, you can add a new habit into this fast and efficient network of neurons more quickly than if you tried to build a new path from scratch.
We can use this concept to stack an exercise routine onto something we’re already doing. Again, the reason habit stacking works so well is that your current habits are already built into your brain. You have patterns and behaviors that have been strengthened over weeks, months, or even years. By linking your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, you make it more likely that you'll stick to the new behavior.
So think about the areas in your life where an exercise routine might fit in. What are some of the habits you already do in those areas?
Maybe you already have a morning routine where you spend time reading or journaling, and you can easily tack on another 20 or 30 minutes for exercise. Perhaps you have a habit of taking the same route home after work, and you always pass a yoga studio you’ve been wanting to try. You could add a stop on your route of dropping by an evening yoga class before you head the rest of the way home.
Once you’ve determined your current habit, complete this sentence: after/before my current habit, I will add my new habit. So, “after I read this chapter, I will exercise for 20 minutes.” Or, “Before I drive home, I will take a yoga class.” See how it works?
Changing an area of your wellbeing – like an exercise routine – comes down to our mindset and habits. Willpower will only take us so far. That’s why developing habits is so important for our current and future wellbeing.
Habit stacking, adding new habits to current habits, helps you build that willpower muscle without even thinking about it! Soon, you’ll be exercising three or four days per week without even realizing you changed a habit. You’ll make more progress toward your goals because you’re choosing to overcome your fixed mindset. Because you’ve built a habit, it takes the pressure off deciding whether or not you feel up to working out.
How can you use habit stacking to add a healthy habit to your daily routine? Let me know in the comments!