Boost your fitness with healthy habits

Girl in yoga pose against background of mountains and waterSo you know exercise is good for you – gives you better fitness, better sleep, more energy, improved brain function, better mood and compliments on how well you’re looking. Maybe you made New Year’s resolutions about getting into better shape in 2015. Maybe you took part in the 10 Weeks of Wellbeing series I ran in the Irish Sunday Mirror last year, and set goals around increasing your health and fitness.

If so, how are you getting on? Have you got into good exercise routines, and are now enjoying the benefits? Or are you struggling to make new routines stick? Here are some simple ideas for how you can make and meet good fitness goals in 2015.

Step 1. List Barriers

What stops you from regularly exercising? Tick all of the below that apply, and add your own:

  • Not enough time
  • Not enough money
  • Not enough energy
  • No-one to exercise with
  • Don’t like gyms
  • Don’t have room
  • Don’t have the right equipment
  • Health issues

Step 2. Check Motivation

There are two main types of motivation. ‘Towards’ motivation is about being motivated towards a goal – wanting to exercise because you know you’ll feel much better, look better, sleep better and increase your health and lifespan. ‘Away from’ motivation is about being motivated away from something you want to avoid – getting sick, ageing prematurely, not being able to care for others, feeling and looking unhealthy.

A 2013 study on the effect of incentives on performance found that most participants worked longer at a task if they thought they’d lose something by failing, than if they thought they’d win something by succeeding1. They also found an age-related trend – people under 36 were more likely to be motivated to avoid loss or failure, whilst those who were 36 and over were equally motivated by positive and negative incentives.

Whilst excessive worry is bad for your health, so is ignoring consequences of action or inaction. Whilst positive motivation is generally better, negative motivation can be useful when you try to trick yourself into not making necessary changes. If you are very prone to worry or anxiety, stick with ‘what do you want to move towards’ and skip the next section. Otherwise, let’s try both types and see which feels more motivating for you:

  • What are you moving towards? List all your positive reasons for exercising. You might like to draw pictures, find photos of a younger, healthier you, or gather motivational photos from magazines or online. Close your eyes and imagine a fit and healthy you going about your day. How will you feel? How will you look? How will it affect people in your life? How will it be better? Look for positive, inspirational stories of people who’ve made changes in their fitness levels – in your social circles, or in the media.
  • What are you moving away from? Write down all the negative outcomes you might experience if you don’t make changes. Add pictures, or find pictures of an unhealthy you that you’d like to move away from. If you don’t make positive changes, how is your wellbeing likely to be 1, 5, 10 years from now? Close your eyes and imagine an unhealthy you going about your day. How will you feel? How will you look? How will it affect people in your life? Look for stories of people who let their health decline through lack of exercise.

Which of the above tasks was more motivating? Highlight the things that really motivated you, and keep that info somewhere handy for when willpower dwindles – as it will!

Now, here’s the crunch question I ask my coaching clients: How committed are you to making a change, on a scale of 0-100%? If your answer’s 80% or higher, proceed. If not, revisit the exercises above, or cut out and keep this exercise for another time.

Step 3: Overcome Barriers

Go back to the Step 1 above and find solutions to each “barrier”. (Seek personalised advice from a qualified professionals before implementing health-related changes.) Here are some examples:

Not enough time

  • Is this really true? Be honest with yourself. Look for low-importance activities you could ditch or minimise to make time for investing in your health, like aimless internet browsing or TV (see next point).
  • What opportunities are there to combine exercise with something else on your schedule? Depending on where you live, changing your cross-city commute to a cycling commute could be an option. How about a regular walk or run with friends instead of a phone catch-up? Running or walking whilst listening to your favourite podcast? Standing desks are becoming popular (note movement is the key goal with these, not swapping sitting still for hours for standing still for hours), and you could work out core muscles by sitting on a gym ball while you watch the TV show you can’t miss. (I once arrived home to a shared flat with a mini-trampoline so I could ‘jog whilst watching TV’ – that habit never stuck, but it was fun for parties.) Consider ditching the TV set altogether – I gave mine away 10 years ago and whilst these days I still enjoy unwinding with shows/films on my laptop, it’s a conscious choice to watch something rather than just passively absorbing whatever happens to come on next on the TV in the corner. At the least, consider cutting down – various studies have linked excessive TV watching to depression. If you’re claiming you don’t have time to invest in your health but you are finding time for a few hours of TV every day, something needs tweaking.
  • Search online for simple strength postures you can practice a few minutes at a time – “the plank” is a great one for core strength.
  • Find a short workout routine in a book or online, or get a DVD that has workouts broken into short chunks (see my recommendations below – I love the ’10 Minute Solutions’ DVDs).
  • Get a skipping rope, and skip for a few minutes at a time, whenever you have time. Skipping is a great way to raise your heart rate, and if you’re doing it in short bursts, it won’t be enough to break a sweat, so no need to change your clothes.
  • Dance break! Dancing for 3-5 minutes every few hours is one easy, mood-boosting way to get you back in a more active mindset. Be inspired by the wonderful Nana Feole:

Not enough money/Don’t like gyms/Don’t have the right equipment

  • List ways you can exercise for free – walking, doing sit-ups/press-ups, dancing, doing energetic chores, using online videos etc. Join your local library and borrow books and DVDs (I’ve shared some of my favourites below).
  • Find out what free classes/activities are available at your local leisure centre, school or community centre. Check second-hand shops and websites like Freecycle for used gear.
  • Gardening is a great activity for wellbeing. Check if there’s a local allotment scheme you can join – it could save you some money on fresh veg too.

Not enough energy

  • Again, do seek medical advice for specific issues, but generally speaking, exercise creates energy. Don’t wait to feel full of energy before starting; just start. (If you feel pain or dizziness, stop!)
  • Add music! It’s not just a positive distraction or mood-booster when working out; it can also increase your sense of flow (being absorbed in your activity), make you work harder and help you performer better. Being able to choose your own playlist seems to give greater benefits, and tempo affects your performance too – sports psychology expert Costas Karageorghis, from Brunel University in London, claims the sweet spot is between 120 and 140 beats per minute.
  • Consider a personal trainer, who can push you to get going even when you’re protesting you’ve no energy, and help get you motivated – ask for recommendations and find out how this trainer likes to work, to see if their style is a good match for your needs. This is also a good option for the next ‘reason’, i.e.:

No-one to exercise with

  • Which forms of exercise could you enjoy alone – running, swimming, cycling, for example? Use music, DVDs or online workouts for a lively atmosphere.
  • Join a class and make new friends! Ask them about their goals, progress etc., and invite them for post-workout coffee.
  • Make a trade with a friend or family member: they go with you to a class once a week and go with them to another.
  • Join or similar and look for groups of solo people getting together for activities. (Hiking or running groups tend to be popular, and free.)

Don’t have room

  • You don’t need much space to perform many simple, core exercises that give great results – sit-ups, push-ups (think you can’t do them? Check out for a great training programme), the plank, star-jumps, etc. Remember that any energetic activity performed deliberately and raising the heart rate counts as exercise: climbing steps, doing chores, gardening, climbing stairs, walking to the bus stop and so on.
  • Find opportunities to get active outdoors – outdoor training sessions or bootcamps for energetic work-outs, or perhaps an allotment scheme for lower-intensity exercise. Look for classes in your local community centre, etc.

Health issues

  • If you have health or mobility issues, speak to your healthcare providers about what you can safely do to boost health and fitness. Check with trainers and instructors whether they can adapt their class for your needs – make sure they’re qualified to do so!
  • Find people with the same or similar issues either in local support groups or online, and ask them what solutions they’ve found.

Step 4: Create habits and routines for your goals

One of the main reasons people fail when trying to make changes is because people often attempt to use willpower alone. But willpower is a limited resource, and it weakens the more mental work we do. To make change stick, create healthy, supportive routines – so instead of arguing with yourself whether you ‘should’ do something today or tomorrow or next week, you do the things you’ve decided are important to do at the times you’ve made a habit of doing them. Change requires rewiring of the brain, and forming new habits – mental and physical – does the rewiring. Joining a regular class or booking a regular slot with a personal trainer helps here; as does finding a buddy to train with, so long as you encourage each other to stick to your new routine, rather than enable each other to break it! There are also multiple apps and websites you can use to follow a programme, track your progress and build good habits. I’ve already mentioned (and there are many push-apps on various app stores) – check out the popular Couch to 5K programme too.

Whatever your circumstances, decide on the new habits you want to put in place to boost your health and fitness this year, and plan how to make it easy for yourself to lock the habits in.

Be well!

[This article first appeared in my wellbeing column in the Irish Sunday Mirror on Sunday 4th January.]


1Goldsmith, K. & Dhar, R. (2013). Negativity bias and task motivation: Testing the effectiveness of positively versus negatively framed incentives. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol 19(4), pp. 358-366.

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1 Response

  1. February 15, 2015

    […] finally, do create good habits of exercise, diet and relaxation – and get a good sleep routine. We all of course have primary […]

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