The Path to Consistent Exercise

Consistent exercise carries huge upside and virtually no downside. And yet, a large number of people don’t do it consistently. The specific reasons vary, but they’re rooted in the same general reason—poor strategy.

I’ve had successes and failures in workout out over the last 15 years, and this is my conclusion about how to get consistent exercise.

Level One: Get Easy Wins

Being consistent means you do it for years and months, not weeks and days. The step that finally got me on the consistent exercise train was doing one push-up a day. As much as I talk about it, mini habits remain a critical first step for building a behavioral foundation. Most people have tried and failed countless times to exercise consistently with too-difficult goals. All this does is discourage them and drive them further away from who they want to be.

When you switch to something you can do every single day without fail, and you do it for a few months straight (I did it six months to start out), you give your brain enough time and space to change the way it perceives exercise. You give it time to understand the amazing benefits of being active.

Level Two: Once You Establish A Foundation, Do More But Stay Flexible

After six months of one push-up per day, I started going to the gym. I didn’t have a specific routine, I just had to show up 3-4x a week.

This worked well for a couple of years and helped to further engrain exercise as a foundation of my life.

As time went on, I wanted to take it to the next level.

Level Three: As You Gain Experience and Confidence, Add In Rigidity

Today is more than five years after I started doing one push-up a day. Exercise is a big part of my life and I feel off mentally as well as physically if I go without it for too long.

Because my relationship with exercise is strong, I can now set a requirement for every single day, but that requirement is highly pliable to allow for a number of scenarios. I came up with this solution because I had some health issues in the last few months that affected my ability (or willingness) to exercise, and when I got healthy again, I didn’t snap right back to my former routine. 

Here’s my current flexible-but-rigid routine…

  • Sunday (flex): legs, HIIT, walk, abs, rest
  • Monday: push or pull
  • Tuesday: push or pull
  • Wednesday (flex): legs, HIIT, walk, abs, rest
  • Thursday: push or pull
  • Friday: push or pull
  • Saturday (flex): legs, HIIT, walk, abs, rest

Can do less, but no skipping. No excuses. Show up.

To give you an idea of the flexibility here, a successful week could be…

  • Sunday (flex): rest
  • Monday: 20 push-ups
  • Tuesday: 130 push-ups
  • Wednesday (flex): rest
  • Thursday: 15 push-ups
  • Friday: 65 push-ups
  • Saturday (flex): rest

It could also be…

  • Sunday (flex): squats, lunges
  • Monday: full tricep and chest workout (gym)
  • Tuesday: full back, bicep, and shoulder workout (gym)
  • Wednesday (flex): 30 minutes of HIIT on treadmill
  • Thursday: push-up workout on Madbarz (a good app for bodyweight exercises and traveling)
  • Friday: full back, bicep and shoulder workout (gym)
  • Saturday (flex): abs, hiking

Those are two completely different weeks, and two successes. This allows me to adapt seamlessly. For example, last week I had some sinus issues and felt well under 100%, so I took some rest days and did a small number of push-ups on other days. Combined with my new tracking method, this makes me a juggernaut of consistency.

I know what I’d ideally like to do on each day, and I will almost always do that when able, but when I need a break for any reason, my plan doesn’t fall apart and I don’t feel like I’ve “fallen off the wagon” (which usually leads to completely giving up).

There’s not a single day of the week that is unaccounted for, and there’s not a single day of the week that is completely rigid. My minimum workout for a given week will be some number of push-ups for 4 days and 3 days of rest. My maximum workout would annihilate my entire body with lactic acid soreness and fatigue. I have the entire range of possibilities, and it’s all success, it’s all encouraging forward progress, and I can’t lose if I put in just a little bit of effort. On rest days, I can rest all day and check off my “workout” as complete, because I’m in compliance with my plan.

Keep in mind that I can only do this because of my habitual base. If I had tried this 5 years ago when my brain dreaded exercise, I would fail it like with any other plan. I’m lazier than most, though, so maybe you could succeed with a flexible plan like this now.

Level Four: As You Become Elite, Remove Flexibility

Jack LaLanne exercised for two hours with pneumonia… at 96 years old. That was the day before he died. That sort of dedication puts your last excuse to shame, doesn’t it?

Fun tip: The next time you come up with an excuse not to exercise, ask yourself if it’s more valid than being 96 with pneumonia. 

When you work out every day for decades (as Jack did), the habit can empower a 96-year-old body with pneumonia to lift weights. As for me, I’m likely to cancel my workout or decrease my intensity if I sneeze once, and that’s because I’m still strengthening the habit. It’s not much different from weight lifting, actually. First, you build a base of strength (showing up consistently), and then you can start adding the big weight. That’s the path to consistent exercise.

Some people are able to go through this process quicker than others. Most, like me, have to build up to it slowly. If you’re not there yet, and you’ve been trying for a while, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do it overnight. Take it one step at a time, build your foundation first, and then build on top of it. The good news is that once the foundation is set, progress is more exponential than linear.

What level are you at? If you have had a setback like injury or illness, you might want to take a step back in this process. I was at level four for a time, and then got sick (possibly from working out too much), so I have some rebuilding to do. 

When you’re talking about habit formation, taking a step back to become more consistent isn’t a loss, it’s a smart move. Your behavioral foundation is everything and should be prioritized over the “big one-time wins” that most people covet. I’ll always take 1 push-up a day for 100 days over 100 push-ups in one day. Any single day (good or bad) can fade into oblivion, but 100 days in a row of anything is substantial to your brain.

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