12 Tips for Getting Regular Exercise

Gretchen Rubin on the benefits of happiness and fitness

Exercise is a KEY to happiness. Research shows that people who exercise are healthier, more energetic, think more clearly, sleep better, and have delayed onset of dementia. They get relief from anxiety and mild depression. They perform better at work.

Also, although it’s tempting to flop down on the couch when you’re feeling exhausted, exercise is actually a great way to boost energy levels. Feeling tired is a reason to exercise, not a reason to skip exercise.

But even when you admit that you’d feel better if you exercised, it can be very hard to adopt the habit. My idea of fun has always been to lie in bed, reading, preferably while also eating a snack – but I’ve managed to keep myself exercising over the years by using all these tricks on myself:

1. Always exercise on Monday. This sets the psychological pattern for the week. Along the same lines…

2. If at all possible, exercise first thing in the morning. As the day wears on, you’ll find more excuses to skip exercising. Get it checked off your list, first thing. It’s also a very nice way to start the day; even if nothing else goes right, you’ve accomplished that.

3. Never skip exercising for two days in a row. You can skip a day, but the next day, you must exercise, no matter how inconvenient. (Lately, I haven’t been following this rule, and it has really affected my routine for the worse. I’m going to re-double my commitment to it.)

4. Give yourself credit for the smallest effort. My father always said that all he had to do was put on his running shoes and close the door behind him. Many times, by promising myself I could quit ten minutes after I’d started, I got myself to start – and then found that I didn’t want to quit, after all.

5. Think about context. I thought I disliked weight-training, but in fact, I disliked the guys who hung out in the weight-training area. Are you distressed about the grubby showers in your gym? Do you try to run in the mornings, but recoil from going out in the cold? Examine the factors that might be discouraging you from exercising.

6. Exercise several times a week. If your idea of exercise is to join games of pick-up basketball, you should be playing practically every day. Twice a month isn’t enough.

7. If you don’t have time both to exercise and take a shower, find a way to exercise that doesn’t require you to shower afterward. Each week, I have a very challenging weight-training session, but the format I follow doesn’t make me sweat. (Some of you are saying, “It can’t be challenging if you don’t sweat!” Oh yes, believe me, it is.)

8. Look for affordable ways to make exercising more pleasant or satisfying. Could you upgrade to a nicer or more convenient gym? Buy yourself a new iPod? Work with a trainer? Get a pedometer to keep track of your walking distances? Exercise is a high life priority, so this a worthwhile place to spend some money if that helps.

9. Think of exercise as part of your essential preparation for times you want to be in especially fine form — whether in performance (to be sharp for an important presentation) or appearance (to look good for a wedding) or mood (to deal with a stressful situation). In college, my roommates and I always made sure to exercise the day of a big party. Studies show that exercise does help.

10. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t decide it’s only worth exercising if you can run five miles or if you can bike for an hour. I have a friend who scorns exercise unless she’s training for a marathon — so she never exercises. Even going for a ten-minute walk is worthwhile. Do what you can.

11. Suit up. Even if you’re not sure you’re going to exercise, go ahead and put on your exercise clothes. Pack your bag. Put the dog’s leash by the door. Get prepared. If you’re ready to go, you might find it easier just to go ahead and exercise. Sometimes, a very trivial thing — like not knowing where your shoes are — gets in the way.

12. Don’t kid yourself. Paying for a gym membership doesn’t mean you go to the gym. Having been in shape in high school or college doesn’t mean you’re in shape now. Saying that you don’t have time to exercise doesn’t make it true.

People often ask me, “So if I want to be happier, what should I be doing?” and I always say, “The first thing to do is to make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and some exercise.”

I know, that answer doesn’t sound properly transcendent and high-minded on the subject of happiness, but research shows that you’d be wise to start there. And I’ve found that if I’m feeling energetic and well-rested, I find it much easier to follow all my other happiness-inducing resolutions.

6 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Idyllic early mornings?  You might cringe and say “no way” . . . but I have found a way to mix exercise and a great social life at the same time.  Many years ago — too many to mention actually — our large local mall decided to accommodate – even encourage walkers with little gifts – beginning at 6:30 a.m.  There are no excuses for bad weather when it is attractive and enclosed in all weather.  And so I appeared, unsure of the protocol – but only that first day.  There were lockers for coats – with locks – and one look told me that ‘counterclockwise’ was THE way to go.  In the beginning while alone, I made it a game, seeing if I could pass lone walkers as often as possible, finding it good for the ego.  I was fit .  .  . or so it seemed. 

    But I began to notice some walkers travelled in small packs – as I called them — and having others pace you seemed a smart move.  Everyone was cheery, friendly, but after a few weeks a found my niche.  .  . a group of six men, walking before work, who seemed happy to make room for a woman who could keep up their pace.  Me!!!  The men seemed up on such a variety of topics that time flew.  We walked that brisk pace for an hour at the very least — 7 days a week.  Talking so much, we soon knew each other well that if a person missed a day, we actually worried.  We still do — as we have become “family”, caring for each other in a way reserved for best friends who truly care. 

    In the great weather before the summer heat killed us, we would decide to do the ring road outside around the mall, devoid of traffic and ours alone, when we felt like it. . which means “sometimes”.

    How can I call this wonderful beginning of the day “exercise”??  Instead, I consider it perhaps my only social occasion on some busy days, filled with laughter and fun, and that 4 mile per hour “clip” becoming easier after the first year.

    And so, whatever you do to keep young and agile, I find easier to do if you have a dedicated friend or friends along.  Take it from me, you feel guilty if you miss a day . . . and you feel on top of the world as you go off to work or to your daily life, strictly from the camaraderie of people (in this case, men) who act like you have made their day. 

    My mind is stimulated by 8 am and spirits are high — and I do believe I can climb mountains for another year!!!!

  2. avatar Maggie W says:

    I’ve run three marathons over the years.  Just recently my niece and I ran a half marathon.  I have become friends with my trainers and the training groups. We all had the same goal, and that is inspiring.  I would not recommend long distance running or walking for everyone.  There can be issues depending on the shoe, the terrain, and the overall health of the runner. 

    Also, it’s not for everyone.  A good friend hates it, but she does meet her swim group four mornings a week.  My cousin took a clogging class.  Whew ! Now that is a work out!!   Now she and a partner compete statewide.  The important thing is not just to move but to enjoy it when you do.  I always looked forward to those 5:00 AM training sessions with my practice group.  My husband teases that I am part antelope. Also, since I live near the coast, solitary walks along the beach are not only good exercise but promote good mental health as well.  I usually return home with some small treasure.

  3. avatar joesfortune says:

    Nice article. Somehow, however, I think there are items in the list that are redundant.

  4. avatar bluspring says:

    It is a nice  suggestion for everyone to keep healthy and fit . I know a club for  this article . we can check it :wealthymatching.com

  5. avatar sinala1a says:

    I liked the suggestions and thought I’d share what helped me. I always used bad weather as an excuse but when I bought a video game system with a fitness program (I won’t say which- this is not intended to be an advertisement!) I no longer had that excuse. I’ve been doing it faithfully for over 3 months and seldom skip a day because I like the way I feel. I am hopeful that I can really stick with it this time! It’s never too late to try to incorporate regular exercise into your life- I’m nearly 60.
    I love your columns, Gretchen- keep it up please!

  6. avatar pursegirl says:

    Good reminders- I agree with joesfortune that some statements seem to repeat. For those of us who just can’t stay disciplined about exercise, it is best to start eating right first. My dog keeps me accountable for getting up and out for a walk each day. I am finding on my journey to Thinville that it is easier to eat right, than to exercise every day. Still, I am trying!