How to Make Exercise a Daily Habit

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Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. That it reduces your risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. That it lowers your weight while raising your spirits. But for too many of us, the gap between couch and gym is just too great.

Many people embark on an ambitious exercise program only to lapse back into inactivity after a few workouts. These people fail to develop the exercise habit that keeps some people up and active through all kinds of moods and weather.

A positive addiction

As with food and sex, we have an innate appetite for physical activity. Working out triggers production of dopamine and other pleasure-giving neurotransmitters, and the brain comes to crave this rewarding “bath” of neurotransmitters.

Consequently, people who work out regularly develop a sort of addiction to exercise. For them, exercise is no longer a chore or obligation. It’s a pleasurable habit.

How do you reach that point? The key is finding a way to enjoy your workouts. If you dread exercise if you expect it to be painful and/or boring it will be. Anticipate pleasure, and you’ll find that instead.

Self education is key

Having a vague notion that exercise is beneficial does nothing for your attitude. You must read up on the specific, concrete rewards of exercise.

Good sources of information

The American College of Sports Medicine Fitness Book (IBS) and Dr. Robert Cooper’s Health and Fitness Excellence (Houghton Mifflin).

Find out exactly how exercise strengthens the muscles and boosts endurance. Learn how regular workouts cut your risk for heart dis¬ ease as effectively as quitting smoking.

Talk to enthusiastic exercisers. Get them to tell you how they feel during and after working out. Ask them why they do it. Catch their excitement.

When I was a medical resident, I knew I should exercise. But I had no time or so I thought. I asked a student a 25-mile-a-week runner why he wasted the time when his schedule was already jammed. He explained vividly how running gave him extra energy and honed his concentration.

He claimed that the 30 minutes a day he spent running actually made him a better student. Guess what? He graduated first in his class.

Reward yourself

One good way to train yourself to become a habitual exerciser is to bolster your brain’s natural reinforcement system with external rewards.

During your workouts, envision the cold drink you’ll treat yourself to after it’s over or promise yourself a bagel or low-fat muffin.

Set up a system of short-term rewards for meeting your goals. If you’ve faithfully walked 30 minutes a day all week, indulge yourself with a good book or movie, a new article of clothing or an afternoon off from work. Enjoy this special treat with a clear conscience.

To maintain your interest and boost your fitness continually revises your goals upward.

As your conditioning improves, shoot for a 20- minute-a-mile pace, then a 15-minute-a-mile pace (or whatever pace seems reasonable for you).

Record your progress in an exercise journal. Review it periodically to remind yourself of just how far you have come.

Secrets of exercise success

• Exercise with a buddy

Running, walking or weight-training with a like-minded individual is far more pleasurable than working out alone. When you have an exercise buddy, each exercise period becomes a social occasion as well as a workout. You look forward to getting together. You can compare notes and encourage each other, too.

• Help others with their exercise pro¬ grams

In addition to seeking help in forming an exercise habit, give help to a friend or family member who wants to get into shape. Doing so makes it harder to accept your own excuses for not working out. If you have kids, exercising together certainly qualifies as “quality time.” By encouraging your kids to exercise, you help them cultivate a lifelong, life-giving habit. Helping others works even if the other “person” is a dog. I became a committed runner as a result of taking my overweight Collie-Shepherd mix, Sam, on a daily two-mile run. No matter how tired I feel, I refuse to let the pup miss his exercise.

• Combine exercise with another activity

I exercise outdoors as much as possible, resorting to the gym only when bad weather hits (or for weight-lifting). Like many people, I find stair-climbers and stationary bicycles boring. To make working out on them more palatable, I read magazines and medical journals as I step or pedal.

When I run on a treadmill, I listen to self-help audio tapes. One of my favorites is Dr. Denis Waitley’s six-tape set The Psychology of Winning (Nightingale Conant).

• Include several different kinds of exercise in your repertoire

You might run one day, bike the next, swim the next, etc. “Cross¬ training” helps you achieve full-body fitness while staving off boredom.

Exercising on the road

Before departing, call ahead to find out if health club facilities are available at your hotel (or nearby). If you return to the same city frequently, scout out the best exercise opportunities.

If you’ve been cross-training, you’ll have no trouble getting in a good workout whether the available facilities are geared to running, bicycling, swimming, etc.

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