Developing the habit: have you got what it takes?

Healthy Eating, Progress Tracking and Strength and Fitness Training

When choosing your fitness provider are you buying hope on sale or investing in your future?

The prevalence of quick fixes in fitness is rife, and long term fitness habit changes aren’t sexy.

This article will explain why creating a long term fitness habit is preferable to a quick fix approach if you want to look, feel, and be healthy for the rest of your life.

I will also look at the main reasons people fail to develop an effective training habit and suggest ideas on how to ensure that does not happen to you, these include:

  1. How properly prioritizing training so you train consistently;
  2. How to handle long or frequent travel schedules;
  3. How to train (and still progress) while injured;
  4. How to avoid wasted effort or training plateaus.

Why are quick fixes so prevalent?

It is understandable that people want to believe that being healthy, fit, or lean is a 9-week challenge that you can take on and win and then return to ‘normal’ life.  It seems to be the most common message used to sell fitness in the industry today.  Marketing campaigns abound making fat loss look like a one off battle that you either win or loose.

In Australia approx. 17.4% of men and 15.4% of women suffer from Impaired Glucose Tolerance or Impaired Fasting Glucose.

Dunstan DW, Zimmet PZ, Welborn TA, De Courten MP, Cameron AJ, Sicree RA, Dwyer T, Colagiuri S, Jolley D, Knuiman M, Atkins R, Shaw JE. The rising prevalence of diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance: the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study. Diabetes Care. 2002;25:829–834.

You may hear this referred to as ‘Insulin Resistance’

An endocrinologist that treats one of my clients for IGT has told her she is at war with her body – for the rest of her life!

Luckily most people have it a bit easier, but being fit, lean, and healthy is not achieved in the short term – it is a lifelong habit.

The reason quick fixes are prevalent is that it is selling hope in a palatable pill – nothing too hard to swallow or too difficult to adhere to.

It isn’t a bad approach – it gets people started – but the drop our rates are huge.

My experience as a fitness provider is the problem is expectations.  It is harder to re-adjust expectations once they are set – and if you are asked to do that after 9 weeks of hellish training and nutritional fanaticism – you will probably never want to exercise again!

I believe in developing a life-long habit

My clients demand honesty and integrity and it is with this in mind that I need to tell you that being fit and healthy is a lifelong habit.

In most cases, the life you lead is what got you where you are.  So, unless you are truly happy with your physical and mental health, you will need to rethink your current habits, permanently!

I believe in a slower, steadier approach to reaching health goals and more realistic targets.

Slow and steady habit transformation isn’t a sexy topic.  It isn’t going to feature in many marketing campaigns, and it isn’t what celebrity or Internet trainers are going to try and sell you.

Habit transformation is, however, a highly effective process that builds on small wins and sets you up for long-term success.

Here are just some key advantages to a more methodical, habit transformation based approach:

It is also worth noting that there are some drawbacks:

I feel that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages and in most cases, I encourage my clients to adopt this approach.

Tested strategies to overcome predictable challenges

While everyone is different, over the long term everyone faces challenges that can de-rail their efforts.  What are they and how can you overcome them:

Prioritization will allow you to make better decisions about when to train and when not to.  Some people do this implicitly – I teach everyone else to do it explicitly!

Like superannuation, exercise becomes more valuable the longer you invest in it; unlike super, you rarely get a chance to catch up on missed contributions.

Benefitting from exercise requires consistent, long-term investment

Once you truly accept that getting results will require consistency, there are four (4) ways I recommend people learn to better prioritize their training.  Using just one of these can really help:

  1. Setting exercise as a priority means that you have things that are less important and things that are more important.  As a general rule, less important things cannot interfere with your training.   I recommend making a list of generic categories of things you do; set a realistic priority for each activity, and use that to guide you when making the decision to exercise or not at any given time.  If the alternative activity is a lower priority – simply do not allow it to interfere with your exercise at any point;
  2. Formalise your training time. If you need to exercise 3 times per week (as a rough guide) you should do everything you can to maintain this frequency.  Having 3 booked sessions per week has certainly worked for many of my clients.  Once sessions with your trainer are in your diary – the chances of not turning up to them are massively reduced.
  3. Categorize activities into ‘replaceable’ and ‘irreplaceable’ activities.  Irreplaceable means it needs to be done at a set time.  Exercise is irreplaceable because it needs to be done regularly – it is a bit like medication- you can’t store it up and take it all at once!  Replaceable means it can be done at another time, with no impact to the overall outcome you need to achieve.  You should never let a replaceable activity get in the way of an irreplaceable activity.  For me, the following are replaceable:

i)     dentist appointment (or hair appointment, spray tan, pedicure etc.)

ii)    lunch with friends; after work drinks

iii)  watching your favourite t.v. program


4)   Make ‘being active’ a daily priority.  You eat, drink, and breathe every day, so you should move too.  We aren’t suggesting that a gym session every day is necessary – just add recreational activity to any day you can’t make it to the gym, this includes playing sport, swimming, yoga, Pilates, jogging and many others.  Only when you stop eating, drinking, and breathing do you have a reason not to be active every day!!

Travel and holidays can disrupt progress and break a habit.  I suggest the following strategies to limit this:

  1. If you are a recreational traveller:
    1. Ask for exercise routines from your trainer that you can do anywhere with minimal, lightweight equipment that you can take with you (bands and TRX’s);
    2. Look for recreational activities that are also exercise (biking, hiking, kayaking, swimming etc);
    3. Commit to a morning challenge (100 squats and 100 press-ups, for example), to start every day the right way.
    4. If you are a business traveller I recommend:
      1. Ask your trainer for routines that are gym based but time efficient and using minimal equipment.  30 min workouts should be manageable in any work day;
      2. Book into hotels that have a well equipped gym;
      3. Invest in a TRX if the accommodation doesn’t have a good gym;
      4. Contact colleagues at the destination and see if you can join in activities they already participate in (while building relationships with people by sharing in the things they like to do!)

What is at risk here, if you stop, is your exercise habit.  You may be limited in what you can do, but do not let an injury further ruin your health by breaking your habit!

I have coached many clients with injuries and issues (normally caused outside the gym or as a result of bad luck) and we don’t allow that to affect exercise habit, I just look for everything that they can do.

To make it a more positive experience, I may use it as an opportunity to fit in things we sometimes do not have time for or set challenges that can be tackled with more focus than normal.  For example:

  1. Shoulder injury.  Objective – get structural balance back to optimal.  Try single arm presses and isolation work for shoulder stabilizers, if possible.
  2. Back pain.  Objective – improve structural balance and improve knee, hip, and ankle stabilization.  Try single leg body weight exercises – maybe this is your time to learn how to do pistol squats!
  3. Arthritis in joints flaring up.  Objective: reduce pain.  Try static isometric exercises, flexibility work, an Infra-Red sauna, and lighter resistance work.  Maybe time to invest in daily glucosamine, chondroitin, and fish oil supplements.
  4. Pulled muscles.  Objective: rebalance antagonist muscle strength, improve tissue quality, speed repair, and prevent further injuries.  Take the time to do more foam rolling and isometric exercises – find weaknesses and remove them.
  5. Broken or immobilized limbs.  Objective: make a positive out of a negative.  Maybe now is the time you should do a bench press or squat specialization routine and get a new personal record!

Humans can adapt to almost anything but adaptation is costly to the body and we have evolved to minimize these changes.  In short – while you want a change, your body does not – which is why strength, muscle growth, and fitness plateaus are the norm for most people.

A good trainer can anticipate plateaus and stimulate constant improvement.

I have seen every approach from constantly changing, random workouts, to people following the same training program for years!  Neither approach is optimal.

In my experience, altering routines every 4-6 weeks is optimal for most people.  Changes don’t have to be radical – but it does take a skilled coach to know how much change is enough.

With new training programs, you will go through 4 stages:

  1. Shock – you and your body struggle to complete to the routine, it feels harder and you may lack confidence when performing it;
  2. Adaptation – you get some traction on the workouts and start moving better and getting a sense that you are getting the hang of the routine;
  3. Performing – suddenly, what may have seemed really hard or uncomfortable becomes doable!  Reps or weights go up; your tolerance for the number of sets improves; the form on the exercises gets better.  At this point you are getting measurably better each workout.
  4. Stagnation – you may well be really enjoying the workouts; you may feel as though you have it licked – you turn up enthused that you know you can get through it ok.  These are nice, comfortable feelings but not where you want to be with training.  At this point, which people will allow to continue for long periods of time, neither your body or your brain are having to change, and so they don’t.

The most common occurrence of stagnation seems to be with joggers.  I have often asked:

“When was the last time you didn’t think you were going to make it on a run?”

In almost all cases, that isn’t something that has ever happened.

Going for a recreational jog is OK.  It can be enjoyable, relaxing, and is certainly good active recovery, though it does not count as training.  Training requires that you push boundaries and constantly challenge yourself.

Putting it into practice

You should now agree that for long-term success you would need to develop an exercise habit that is consistent.  Short-term challenges may kick-start you but many are just selling you what you want to hear, not what you need to know.

To successfully make exercise a habit, you will need strategies for ensuring you exercise and eat well even when external factors, such as work, travel, and family could interfere.  Learning how to properly prioritize can help you make better decisions and reduce the stress when you do need to put training to one side.

By becoming more active on a daily basis, you can also enhance your results without grueling workouts taking over your life.

A great coach can help you through times of injury and help you break through plateaus.  Well-structured training can allow normal people to do extra-ordinary things and year on year you will find that your achievements astound you.

Developing an exercise habit is one of the most rewarding and safest investments you can make in your future.