How to Stick to an Exercise Plan


I used to joke that they only time you’d ever see me running would be if some big angry guy was chasing me. However, in the past few years I’ve gone from dabbling in running to running very consistently. Here are the steps that worked for me.

Pick the Right Exercise

I’ve tried various types of exercise — swimming, biking, racquetball, and others. But the one that works best for me is running. It’s a low-hassle exercise. It doesn’t require much gear, and it doesn’t require a special facility – well, at least not for nine months of the year here in Chicago.

It’s also the exercise where I’ve seen the clearest results. When I run consistently, I feel my best physically, emotionally, and in other ways. (See also: Fitness for People Who Hate Exercise)

Ah, but how to become consistent?

Set a Challenging Goal

For over 15 years, I went through a routine of running regularly to not running to starting to run again. Each time I restarted, I promised myself I would never quit again because starting over is just too painful.

But I kept repeating the cycle. I’d get sick, or busy, or something else would happen and I’d get out of the running routine.

For me, the first step toward developing the consistent habit of running was committing to run the Chicago Half Marathon.

It was a crazy goal. Up to that point, the farthest I had ever run was a 10k. When I trudged across the finish line at that event, I remember thinking I could never possibly run any farther. And yet, here I was signing up to run more than twice that distance.

I just knew that such a goal would get me running consistently, at least for the months leading up to the event. I hoped that the discipline would continue.

Get an Accountability Partner

The one time in my life when I felt like I was in really good shape was when I had a workout partner. We met at the gym every other day. We did cardio stuff, lifted weights, and soon developed the habit of playing racquetball at least once a week.

I dragged myself out of bed early in the morning because I knew he’d be there waiting for me.

This time around, my wife and I both signed up for the half marathon. Since we have three young kids, we were only able to go on one training run together. Still, pursuing the goal together made a big difference.

We took turns off watching the kids while the other ran. We pulled for each other, and sometimes we pushed. She pushed me out the door when I didn’t want to run, and I did the same for her.

Plan Ahead

If I wait until the start of each new day to decide whether to exercise, chances are good I’ll find an excuse not to run. But when I know in advance that I’m going to run on a certain day, I go. I plan my life around that run, making sure I get enough rest the night before, consciously choosing what I eat in the morning, and more. I’ve gotten in the habit of putting running “appointments” on my calendar.

Have a Goal Beyond the Goal

My father died from heart disease. While he made it to his early 80s, things could have been different. He survived a heart attack and several surgeries.There’s a lot he could have missed, like meeting his first grandchild.

Taking care of myself is definitely about the many feel-good benefits that come from being in shape, but it’s about more than that. It’s about wanting to see our kids graduate from college, find their life’s work, marry well, and experience the blessing of having children of their own.

Know That It’ll Always Be a Daily Choice

Following the above steps has helped me become a very consistent runner. There’s more momentum to my exercise routine than ever, but it's far from automatic. It still requires making conscious choices.

And now that winter is here, I know I’m especially vulnerable to the pull of the couch. I hate going to the health club. I much prefer running outside.

So, I’m following the steps above. I’ve set a challenging new goal of running in a 10-mile event in late May. My wife hasn’t decided whether she’s going to run with me, but just going public with the goal in this post is a form of accountability. I’m scheduling my exercise times, and every time I kiss our kids goodnight, I’m reminded of the more important reasons to exercise.

What about you? What have you found helpful in sticking to an exercise routine?

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Guest's picture

I just plugged in a DVD player to the TV that we have in the workout room. So far this keeps me a lot more entertained when I do my morning workout than when I had to watch the news (which is mostly commercials during the early morning hour) or flip through all the infomercials. I am hoping that this really keeps me going.

Meg Favreau's picture

Like Matt, I'm using training for a half-marathon right now to keep me on an exercise plan. The training schedule I'm following has two strength training days, which I've found MUCH easier to do since I've started watching TV shows on Netflix at the same time. I hope the DVD player helps you!

Andrea Karim's picture

I have a similar distraction method with music. I can't watch video while I'm working out (makes me kind of dizzy), but as long as I have severly cheesy and happy music playing in my ears, I feel like I can keep going and going.

Matt Bell's picture

I think that getting your mind to focus on something other than the workout is huge. I listen to music sometimes when I run, but a lot of the time I use that time just to think -- about articles I'm working on, problems I'm trying to solve, friends who are going through challenging times. The workouts definitely seem to go much faster that way.

This winter, since I don't like the music my health club tends to play, I plan to listen to various podcasts while running on the treadmill.

Guest's picture

That is a really great collection of ways to keep exercise on track. The two things I always struggle with are i) finding enough time in the work-week to do a proper exercise session (only real time is before 7am which is tough); and ii) once I am out of the routine, it is just so hard to get back into it - any top tips to convince myself to start back slow and easy?

Matt Bell's picture

What has worked best for me is having a workout/accountability partner. Find someone who has similar goals, or is maybe a step or two further down the road than you. You don't even have to workout each time together. For one really important season of time, I met a group of friends every Friday after work for a run. They were all in better shape than I was. They could talk while they ran; I couldn't! Knowing I was going to run with them on Friday evenings motivated me to run on my own a couple of times during the week before Friday.

Guest's picture

I've found something that helps me personally is to track my workouts much like I'd track my finances. You don't see calories burnt from running show up in your bank account though. You have to start tracking it yourself. Then it can be very satisfying to see the miles pile up over time. Sort of like an exercise bank!

Guest's picture

I think one of the keys to staying committed to exercise is tracking your progress! It really helps me to stay motivated.

The other key is that motivated workout partner, don't look for someone who is as lazy as you. Try to find someone that gets you pumped and ready to get in shape! I know I've been more successful when I've had someone going to the gym with me who always was excited to go every time.

Guest's picture

I have a goal (cruise to the Bahamas in June) but I'm too darn lazy. That's the plain and simple truth. I keep putting it off.

Great ideas!

Guest's picture

Making the plan is one thing. Sticking to it is another. I've been logging what I do. I think it's great to have a long term goal in mind. An official event gives a sense of accomplishment too. Good Luck!