How to Turn Exercise Into a Habit That Sticks

February 25, 2020
A green couch to sit on when motivation to exercise falls flat

It’s a classic tale.

We start an exercise program with heaps of enthusiasm, motivation, and cool new gym clothes.

We make it to a handful of gym sessions, start to feel empowered — unstoppable, even — and then, after a few weeks, our enthusiasm falls flat. Netflix calls our name, the couch arms beckon for us, and our gym clothes get shoved into dusty closet corners. 

We all know that exercise should be on every person’s list of habits — after all, it’s one of the best habits we can develop. Decades of research have confirmed that exercise nourishes our minds and bodies and sets us up for long, happy lives. Yet many of us fail to develop a consistent exercise routine. What’s missing?

Luckily, there are many science-backed secrets to success when it comes to exercise into a practice.

Whether you’ve never exercised consistently or you want to make improvements to your existing habits, we'll provide you with a toolbox of science-backed tips that you can use to avoid common pitfalls to create an effective exercise routine that lasts.

Why Fitness Habits (Usually) Fail

A man with his head in his hands and frustrated about not sticking to his fitness routine

As it turns out, motivation only gets us so far. Many factors can work against you when you’re trying to make a significant, lasting change to your behavior.

Perhaps you can relate to some of these common reasons many people revert back to old habits after short-lived spurts of success:


  • You don’t develop an effective plan for your fitness habit before diving in.
  • You never actually commit to making a change, so your enthusiasm disappears quickly.
  • Your environment and existing habits distract you from your fitness goal.
  • The goal you set is unrealistic, and you become frustrated when you don’t achieve it.
  • You don’t know what workouts to do, how to do them and for how long.
  • You haven’t found a consistent exercise schedule that works well for you.
  • There’s nobody to hold you accountable for your goals and keep you focused.

The first reason on this list is the most important: Lack of an effective plan. When you start your fitness habit with an effective plan, your success is practically guaranteed.

Why? Because a truly effective plan will eliminate every single source of failure listed above. An effective plan incorporates true commitment, helpful environmental changes, realistic goals, enjoyable workouts that evolve with you, an ideal training schedule, and a reliable accountability partner. An effective plan is also designed around your underlying core motivation to get more active and fit in the first place: When you’re crystal clear on why you want achieve what you do, every aspect of your new ritual — and every workout you complete — will be done with intention and determination.

In the following sections, you’ll find valuable tips for creating an exercise habit plan that works well for you. However, keep in mind that a DIY approach is not always ideal for this task because having to sift through mountains of misinformation to plan your own workouts will add lots of unnecessary friction to your fitness feat. Sticking to a new routine means your fitness plan has to be as easy and appealing to repeat as possible. To construct the best possible plan based on your needs, we recommend consulting with a certified personal trainer (CPT).

Trainiac makes it easy to connect with CPTs who are exercise habit experts. Once you’ve chosen your CPT, they will work with you one-on-one to map out a training plan that’s tailored to your preferences, goals, ability level, and physical limitations. Then, they’ll stick with you and hold you accountable to your plan as your fitness journey unfolds.

How Habits Are Formed

Habit loop diagram by Charles Duhigg illustrating how fitness habits are formed
Source: CharlesDuhigg.com

Humans are creatures of habit. We tie our shoes before we leave the house, we take the same route to work every day, we poke at our phones when we get bored.


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle

Before developing any new habit, it helps to understand the basic science of human habit formation. This way, we can take advantage of the way our brains work to get real results. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg discusses the habit loop: A simple 3-part neurological loop that lies behind every human habit:

“First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop … becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.”

By breaking your exercise habit down into these three essential components — cue, routine and reward — you can customize each part of your exercise habit loop so that it that works well for you, and then modify the components if necessary. The tips below will help you take a personalized, science-based approach to each part of your exercise habit loop and set yourself up for long-term success.

Step 1: Hack Your Habit Loop

Tip 1: Get Intentional by Putting Your Goals on Paper

A woman in workout clothes writing down her fitness goals to make exercise intentional

If you’re truly committed to making exercise a habit, writing down your new intentions can be a powerful first step. Research suggests that you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goals just by writing them down. And the resolutions you write down should be specific; a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that new habits were ten times more likely to stick if the resolutions were specific, compared to just thinking about making a change.

So grab a pen and a blank page (a new note on your phone works too). We’ll give you examples along the way, so that you can create your own list of concrete commitments.

Tip 2: Choose an Effective Cue

Your exercise habit will start with a cue — something in your environment that helps your brain go into autopilot and do the routine (in this case, exercise). Choose a cue that’s reliable and hard to miss; a sound or visual cue is usually best.

Here are some tried-and-true habit cues:

  • Set up recurring workout reminders on your phone (choose a unique alarm tone).
  • For morning workouts, sleep in your workout clothes (or stack them on your alarm clock).
  • For evening workouts, as soon as your workday ends, change into your workout clothes.
  • Leave your gym bag in an obvious place.
  • Use a fitness app like Trainiac to remind you of scheduled workouts.

Tip 3: Change Your Environment to Make Success Inevitable

Organize your home gym equipment to make workouts easier to repeat

Benjamin Hardy, author of Willpower Doesn’t Work, says:

“No matter how much internal resolve you have, you will fail to change your life if you don’t change your environment …. Conscious evolution involves purposefully choosing or creating environments that mold us into the person we want to become.”

As you work to establish your workout habit, you may find it helpful to modify your living space so that it’s more exercise-friendly.

Try these ideas for optimizing your environment:

  • Make exercise equipment — weights, yoga mats, resistance bands — easily accessible.
  • Dedicate a space in your home to be (or easily transform into) your workout zone. 
  • If you have a wall calendar, clearly mark the days you plan on working out.
  • Create and display a vision board to remind you of your fitness goals, or write your goals down on Post-Its and put them somewhere you'll see them everyday — like your bathroom mirror.

Tip 4: Establish an Easy Pre-Workout Ritual

A woman stretching as part of her pre-workout ritual

Take your habit cue a step further by establishing a pre-workout ritual. James Clear (author of Atomic Habit) reminds us that:

“The most important part of any task is starting.”

Your pre-workout ritual should be easy to start, should get you moving, and should never be skipped. After enough repetitions, the ritual you choose will prime your brain to anticipate (and look forward to!) your workout.

Pre-workout ritual ideas:

  • Put away your phone and/or computer.
  • Eat a protein-rich snack.
  • Listen to your favorite workout playlist (dancing optional).
  • Do 10 jumping jacks.
  • Have a caffeinated or pre-workout drink.
  • Meditate, do some breathing exercises, or stretch to help you switch into exercise mode.

Tip 5: Piggyback on Another Habit

Two men each giving someone a piggyback to illustrate how new exercise habits can be stacked on existing ones

Try bundling your exercise habit with a different habit. By piggybacking on old habits, you’ll be taking advantage of habit cues that already exist in your mind — and you’ll enrich your existing routine with movement.

In Atomic Habits, Clear calls this “habit stacking:”

“When it comes to building new habits, you can use the connectedness of behavior to your advantage. One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top …. Habit stacking is a special form of an implementation intention. Rather than pairing your new habit with a particular time and location, you pair it with a current habit.”

Examples of habit piggybacking: 

  • Love reading for a couple hours after work? Download audiobooks instead and listen while you exercise.

Try incorporating exercise into your lunch hour. A quick pre-lunch yoga routine can help manage workplace stress, or you can go for a stroll after eating, which is great for digestion.

Step 2: Choose the Right Routine

With an exercise habit, the “routine” is exercise. An ideal exercise routine is convenient, balanced, and effective in helping you reach your goals. An app like Trainiac can give you personalized training plans from certified personal trainers on a weekly basis.

Tip 6: Start With a Goal, But Not a Crazy One

Three bowls of porridge to illustrate James Clear's Goldilocks Rule for establishing realistic fitness goals

Research suggests that your fitness goal should be tough to achieve, but not unrealistic. Set concrete goals, and if you’re just starting out, begin with micro goals like jogging around the block or doing 5 push-ups. Follow James Clear’s “Goldilocks Rule” to keep yourself engaged: Choose exercise goals that are “Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.”

Your fitness goal will be very specific to you, but here are some ideas:

  • By the end of the year, I want to be able to run 3 miles without stopping.
  • I want to lose 10 pounds in 3 months.
  • I want to be able to do a handstand by October.

Whether you’re just starting to exercise or you’re training for your fifth marathon, working with a personal trainer is the best way to choose the right fitness goals and achieve them safely and successfully. Trainiac matches you with top-tier personal trainers who can help you set realistic goals, hold you accountable to your specific goals.

Tip 7: Choose a Workout Method (or Two, or Three) That You Enjoy

A woman plays basketball and incorporates the sport into her workout routine to make it enjoyable

With so many workout methods to choose from, selecting your specific workout method can be an overwhelming task. It’s important for your overall routine to be balanced with strength training, cardio, and mobility exercises — but a balanced routine also means it's just as important to incorporate activities or sports you already like. At Trainiac, we believe that if you already really like to swim, cycle, shoot hoops, run, do yoga, join the occasional dance class, or any other physically demanding activity, it should absolutely be incorporated into your balanced workout routine so you're more inclined to keep active.

If you don't already have any activity preferences, that's okay. Questions like these can help you come up with some ideas to experiment with to keep your overall routine interesting and enjoyable: Would you rather exercise inside or outside? At home or at a gym? By yourself or with others? Which gyms, parks or recreational centers are most convenient for you? How do your friends exercise? Choose a few activities you think you’d enjoy, and give them a try.

The best way to determine your ideal set of fitness activities is to consult with a personal trainer. Trainiac personal trainers customize weekly workout plans for you based on your unique fitness level, goals, background, environment, lifestyle, available equipment, preferred physical activities, and even medical history. By taking the guesswork out of what exercises to do, Trainiac helps you to establish an effective fitness habit.

Tip 8: Find an Accountability Partner to Cheer You On

A handshake between two people illustrating that an accountability partner or personal trainer helps make exercise a habit

Social support makes a big difference in habit formation. A study conducted at Stanford University showed that even small amounts of social support — delivered through phone calls, in this case — can make a positive difference in exercise habit formation. Having someone to cheer you on can drastically increase the likelihood that you’ll stick to a fitness routine.

Your accountability partner can be a family member, friend, or even a coworker. But if you ask us, Trainiac personal trainers are the gold standard of accountability partners. Your trainer will encourage and motivate you through every stage of your fitness journey. Plus, you’ll get objective feedback on your progress as you move towards your goals.

Tip 9: Establish a (Mostly) Consistent Workout Schedule

A training schedule planned ahead of time helps make fitness a habit

When establishing an exercise habit, 4 or more exercise sessions per week is ideal. Some research has suggested that working out at the same time every day is best; this way, you’ll have consistent cues (time of day and environment) that can facilitate the habit. However, other research findings indicate that being too strict with exercise scheduling can cause a fitness habit to fizzle out. 

Since there is no true “ideal” when it comes to scheduling exercise, we recommend finding what works best for you through trial and error. You can start out with either a strict or flexible workout schedule, and modify your schedule over time if needed.

Trainiac puts a certified personal trainer in your pocket, and provides you with personalized workouts that can be done anywhere, anytime. The app allows you to set up automated workout reminders, so that you never miss a workout.

Tip 10: Don’t Sweat Missed Workouts

A clock and stacks of coins show how fitness habits work like compound interest over time

Sometimes life gets in the way. Studies on exercise habits suggest that failures don’t affect long-term success, especially when accompanied by a nudge in the right direction.

Think of each workout as an investment in your retirement account: It’s the repeated monthly investments that you make consistently over decades that create compounded wealth you can live off later in life — not a skipped or smaller investment here and there. Exercise is similar in that any exercise is better than none, and the more you repeatedly work out over time, the more radical the rewards.

Trainiac trainers help you to overcome setbacks and give you the encouragement you need to stick to your training plan.

Step 3: Relish the Reward

The final component of habit formation — the reward — is very important. From your brain’s point of view, the reward is what makes the habit worth remembering. If you immediately reward yourself with something pleasant after completing a workout, you’ll be more likely to persist in your long-term fitness habit.

Tip 11: Don't Forget to Treat Yourself

All of the glorious after-effects of exercise — the endorphin rush, the stress relief, decreased anxiety — are great rewards themselves. But don’t hesitate to treat yourself to something else you enjoy. A fruity smoothie, good movie, warm epsom salt bath, or playing your favorite video game are all great rewards for a good sweat.

As your fitness habit evolves over time, the movement will become its own reward. You’ll find that the countless short-term and long-term benefits that come along with exercise are just too good to pass up. Instead of craving the treat, you’ll crave the heat.

You Got This

Developing a fitness habit can be a daunting task. But by breaking it down into manageable steps, you might be surprised by the progress you make. Will there be tough days? Yes. Will you miss a few workouts? Absolutely. But by following the tips above, you’ll be well on your way to making exercise (and its wonderful symphony of benefits) an automatic part of your life.

At Trainiac, we believe anyone can establish a consistent fitness habit with the right system and support. When it comes to developing a habit of fitness, we’ve found that guidance, support, and accountability from a professional is essential. That’s why we’ve set out to make certified personal trainers more accessible and affordable for all. Interested in learning more about custom-fit fitness? Visit us at TrainiacFit.com, or download the app to start your fitness intake and find your trainer today.

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