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T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
6 Strategies for Sticking With a Fitness Program

Living healthy isn’t just about watching what kind of food you put in your body but also how much you move that body. Regular exercise improves heart health and keeps your weight in check, and it can improve other elements of general fitness like strength and flexibility, all of which allow you to engage more fully in life. That’s why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends logging at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise) every week.

Trouble is, life interferes, and sticking with a fitness program isn’t always easy, which could be one reason so many in the United States are failing to meet that recommendation. According to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index data, only 53.4% of adults said they exercised for at least 30 minutes three times a week in 2016.

Of course, any exercise is better than no exercise, but you want to keep it as consistent as possible to maximize the benefits. How can you achieve that consistency? Try the following six strategies, which I’ve culled from my years as a personal trainer and lifelong exerciser:

  1. Identify your top obstacles: Your fitness program won’t have legs if you haven’t addressed obstacles that might hold you back. So before you take the plunge, think about the things that may deter you and then create solutions to deal with them. For instance, people often cite lack of time as an issue, but if we look more carefully at how we’re spending our time, we may find that our priorities simply need to be adjusted. Try spending two or three days writing down everything you do in the day, especially screen entertainment time. Then look for times you could either add exercise in—for instance, if you always watch a half-hour show every night, give up the couch and plan ways to move during that show—or reduce/eliminate an activity from your day to make room for exercise.
  2. Choose what you enjoy, not what will burn the most calories: I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me what’s the “best” exercise for losing weight or getting in shape quickly. Yes, there are activities that burn more calories than others, but if you don’t enjoy those activities, your workouts will feel like such a chore that you’ll eventually quit. Don’t know exactly what you like? Try several different activities when you’re starting and think back to what you used to love to do as a kid. Personally, I group exercises into those that I love and others that I like. I spend most of my time doing “love” activities and mix in “like” activities to give my mind and body variety.
  3. Find external motivators: For many of us, especially when we’re first starting an exercise habit, we need help to hold ourselves accountable. We’re more likely to show up for our workout if we’re paying for it and/or other people are depending on us. Joining a gym, signing up for a class, or recruiting a partner are all great ways to keep ourselves on track.
  4. Schedule your workouts every week: Just as you mark doctor’s appointments and lunches with friends in your calendar, do the same with exercise. I like to plan my workout program for the upcoming week on Sunday nights. I’ll look at my commitments that week and then plot my workout schedule, noting not only the day and time, but also type of workout. With cardio for instance, I’ll schedule shorter interval workouts—generally about two a week—on days I know I won’t have as much time. I slot longer, endurance-type workouts on the other days. I’ll then figure out when I’m doing strength training and yoga. Remember to incorporate at least one or two days for rest and recovery, especially if your most active days leave you feeling tired or sore. Yoga, walking, slow swimming, and other low intensity activities can help you recover without losing momentum or mobility.
  5. Be flexible: Although I log my workout schedule in my day planner every week, that doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. It’s hard to predict on Sunday night exactly what’s going to happen that week. So I don’t get bent out of shape when things don’t go according to my schedule. Instead, I just rework the schedule as best I can, even if that means cutting a 30-minute workout to only 10 minutes.
  6. Remember your ‘why’: Adopting a new habit is never an easy thing, and temptations are always there to pull you away. Yet, when you feel that tug away from your exercise plan, remind yourself of your ‘why.’ Why do you want to make exercise part of your regular schedule? Keeping the answer to this question top of mind can be a powerful antidote against being suckered into skipping it. Of course, skipping one day isn’t a big deal, but if you start giving yourself this permission regularly, one day adds up two, which slowly becomes three, and before you know it, it’s been weeks since you last did any structured exercise.

Behavior change, including adopting an exercise program, isn’t easy. Give yourself time to adapt, and in a few months, exercising will be so much a part of your routine that making time for it will seem effortless. And when you do have to skip it? You’ll honestly miss it, as your day won’t feel right without it.

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