How to stick to a fitness routine: the ultimate guide

Many Americans start off the year with a list of resolutions to reform their bad habits and improve their health. But over time, our collective resolve predictably dissolves. “Just a month or two later, the gym is empty again,” observes Hal Paz, MD, Aetna’s chief medical officer.

In his twenties, Dr. Paz discovered the secret to achieving his own fitness goals. “The trick was to make it part of my daily routine,” he says. “I get out of bed in the morning and work out. It’s like brushing my teeth. I don’t have to think about doing it.”

No matter how long ago you fell off the health wagon ― two months, two years or more ― it’s never too late to turn things around. And if there’s one resolution you should follow through on, mounting research suggests that regular exercise is almost miraculous in its effects.

1. The whole-body, science-backed benefits of exercise.
Scientific evidence points to physical activity being as essential to good health as Vitamin C or a good night’s sleep. One headline-making study published in November 2017 revealed that cardiovascular training alters our gut bacteria independent of diet. This wasn’t the first time researchers found that exercise is good for us over and above the obvious benefits of weight loss, cardiovascular health or muscle strength. Getting physical clearly changes us at a profound level.

Exercise offers whole-body benefits.
Scientists say there’s strong evidence that exercise has a significant positive impact on many different health risks and conditions:

  • Improves brain health in people predisposed to Alzheimer’s
  • Lowers the risks of colon and breast cancers
  • Reverses the signs of aging in the skin
  • Protects against depression
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Improves insulin resistance
  • Defends against age-related vision loss

What inspires you to get moving?
But just knowing that exercise does a body good isn’t enough to get us off the couch. We need something more to move us.

2. Get inspired.
Finding the motivation to exercise isn’t so much a decision as a discovery. Most people can’t assign themselves a logical reason to get fit unless it also lights a fire in their heart. What drives you to do hard things? These examples may jog your memory:

  • Modeling yourself after an inspirational figure: a coach/mentor, celebrity, even a fictional character
  • Competing with friends, colleagues or strangers. In one 2016 study, researchers observed that competitive groups made people work out more frequently than friendly support. Mobile health apps like Strava make creating group challenges easier. Check out the Aetna App Room on iTunes for more recommended tools.
  • Imagining who and where you want to be in 10 years. Attending your high school reunion in a slinky dress? Spending your retirement hiking the Appalachian Trail?
  • Remembering a loved one. John Agin witnessed his father and grandfather suffer the health effects of long-term smoking, an experience that pushed him to quit and get fit.
  • Playing a sport you’re passionate about. You don’t have to be a skilled basketball player or Olympic-level swimmer to have fun and enjoy a fantastic workout.

A little competition can be a great motivator.

3. How to stick with it.
After inspiration, all you need is persistence. Do whatever you have to do to keep your fitness goals on track. Here are some tried and true strategies:

  • Change your routine. Try classes and activities you’ve never considered before. Just because hiking didn’t interest you years ago doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it now. Open yourself up to new possibilities!
  • Reward yourself. Every time you work out, toss $5 in a jar to fund a massage or weekend getaway. Apps like Beeminder offer a number of goal-tracking functions that are free to use ― as long as you follow your plan. But skip a workout, and you have to pay up!
  • Don’t worry about how much time you put in. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is handy for time-crunched professionals and parents. Studies show you can see benefits from just 10 minutes a day. If you’ve got plenty of time, try working out less strenuously for longer. Larry Beach manages his weight by leisurely walking an 8.8 mile trail between his town and the next.
  • Make your workout a social occasion. Find a local group or a buddy who shares your fitness goals. Even a loyal dog can offer similar accountability and emotional support.

Workout buddies keep us accountable.

  • Find a health coach or trainer. A fitness pro can personalize a program that fits your lifestyle and personality.
  • Work out solo as meditation. It’s no secret that exercise clears the mind. Listening to guided meditation recordings can help you let go of stress and improve your performance.
  • Talk yourself into it. Positive affirmations work a little like self-hypnosis to penetrate your self-conscious and open you up to behavioral change.
  • Keep a health journal. Research suggests that writing down goals leads people to accomplish significantly more than just thinking about them.
  • Optimize your playlist. Did you know that songs with a tempo of 120 beats per minute can make you work out harder?

The right music can significantly boost performance.

  • Be patient. It can take a few weeks to a few months to see the results of a new exercise program.

In the meantime, focus on the immediate benefits of exercise: better sleep, lower stress and a stronger immune system.

  • Just keep searching for your personal magic formula.

More than 50% of Americans meet the guidelines for aerobic activity of 150 minutes per week. So the odds are good that you will keep your fitness resolution. See you at the gym ― or basketball court, track or pool.

About the Author


Maureen Shelly is a health and science 
geek living in New York City.

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