How I Scientifically Created a Habit of Exercising - And You Can Too!

“I don’t need this.”

That’s what I told myself in 2011 when I decided that I was going to officially end any relationship with physical exercise. I was convinced that I no longer needed it. I was beginning to learn more about what I was really passionate about – psychology, writing and becoming an entrepreneur.

So why spend time on exercise? 

Now, that didn’t mean I was giving up being healthy. After all, I knew the importance of diet on your willpower and how eating healthy can help improve your productivity, energy and confidence. But the time spent exercising seemed like a total waste.

But then I came across another study that proved just how important exercise was. Those who exercise on a regular basis are not just healthier, they are also more energetic, more productive and have more willpower.

So, given that I had devoted my life to the science of willpower, I knew it was time to get back to habitually exercising.

I had tried and failed to set up a regular exercise routine more times than I would care to admit in the past. So this time I approached it completely differently. I did not rely solely on my willpower to put on my running shoes. Instead, I turned to science.

Here is how I scientifically created a habit of exercise - and you can too!

1.    DO NOT FAIL 

Almost every person who comes up with a new exercise routine tries to go from zero exercise, to exercising at least 3 times per week – if not more. I was no exception.

Every time I had tried to establish an exercise habit, I would plan to wake up early every day and hit the gym before work. Then I’d do it for a couple days, maybe even a week, and I would feel great. 

Then came “the day”. The day where I was tired, the day where it was cold, the day where I came up with an excuse to hit the snooze alarm and sleep past my workout. That day always set the precedent that skipping a workout was okay, so I skipped another one. Then, before you know it, my exercise habit was dead. 

But this time I had science on my side. I knew that the right behaviors are developed through consistency, not frequency. So I set a plan to workout just 1 day per week. Then I set my entire schedule up to ensure that no matter what I would not skip that day.  

Once I got used to 1 day per week, I added another day. Then after a month, I added another day. The key was that I would never allow myself to add a workout day until I knew I would be able to do it without fail.

When setting up your exercise habit, ensure that no matter what you will achieve it. It does not matter if it is 1 day per week or 7 days per week. The important thing is that you will never skip it. You cannot set up a habit if you are not consistent. [1]


There are many reasons to work out in the evenings. It helps you unwind from a stressful day at work. Your body is much more awake and ready to exert itself. You may even be craving the endorphin rush of physical activity. Or you may simply not be a morning person and the thought of waking up that early makes you want to vomit.

But in order to set up the habit, here are 3 key reasons that you must go in the morning:


How many times have you been invited to a breakfast party at 6am?

How many times have you had to attend your kid's soccer game before school?  

Life happens. You will have to stay late to work, you will have to go to PTA meetings after school, and your coworkers will invite you to a happy hour. These are all commitments that are tough to get out of with the simple reason, “I can’t I have to go to the gym”. So it will be especially tempting to ignore Rule #1 and skip your workout. 

Luckily, life happens far less in the morning. You simply will not have the same temptations to skip your workout in the morning as opposed to the evening. You won’t need to turn down other commitments; you just need to force your way out of bed and through the gym doors.


In the evening, you really have no idea what your circumstances will be. You may be tired, you may be stressed, you may want to chuck your gym bag out the window and pretend you lost it (“ooops…guess I can’t go to the gym today!”)

In the morning, however, you can create an environment that will help you get to the gym. You know that you will be tired and groggy, so what can you do to make waking up to go to the gym easier?

You can set a coffee timer, make yourself your favorite breakfast, or simply have your gym bag packed and your running shoes ready. Cues like these will automatically trigger your body to begin your morning routine of going to the gym. This will make it easier to establish the habit. [1]


We have all been there. We have those especially hard days where we just cannot summon the energy we need to make it to the gym. We have these days because our willpower is like a muscle. If we use it to get through a stressful workday, we will have less energy left to make it to the gym. [2] 

This is why our willpower is the highest in the morning. It hasn’t had to go through the wringer of all of the draining tasks of the day, so there is more of it available to force ourselves out of our beds and make it through the gym doors.


Why do you want to set up an exercise habit?  

Is it because you genuinely want to make a change? Is it because you want to become healthier, stronger or faster? Is it because you are training for a goal like a 10K or a spot on a sports team? 

The thing that changed my perspective from “getting through” my exercise routine, to genuinely enjoying it, was when I decided to train for the Spartan Race. In my first race I finished 334th and I wanted to do better. So day-by-day, workout-by-workout I improved. I got faster, stronger and am now at a point where I consistently finish in the Top 10. When I found this purpose, workouts were no longer a chore; they became an opportunity.

By having a genuine purpose for why you want to exercise, you will make creating the habit easier. Thinking about your purpose causes the area of your brain that is responsible for your long-term goals to activate. This gives you a rush of willpower as you begin to picture yourself achieving what you’re setting out to do. [3]

This is the same rush of energy that we get when we read an inspiring story or hear a motivational speech. It becomes less of a drag for you to get out of bed and struggle through your workout.  

So remember your purpose for getting out of bed and putting your running shoes on. This will not only help you make it to the gym, but help you enjoy it as well.


We have a natural desire for self-improvement. This stems from the days that our ancestors were living in tribes. Tribes were safe, so we wanted to ensure that we had a secure spot within it. So we began to check our own behavior and compare it against the best members of the tribe. This gave us motivation to set higher standards for ourselves and try to live up to them. [4]

I tapped into this natural motivation by monitoring my progress. When I saw how many miles I ran this week, I naturally wanted to run more next week. When I saw how much weight I was able to lift in the gym this week, I naturally wanted to lift heavier weights next week.

Take advantage of your inner drive to improve by tracking your progress. Create a workout journal and write down all of your exercises. This may seem tedious, but by tracking this progress, you will find a desire within yourself to constantly improve.

You can find tools and strategies to monitor your progress in this article.


You know what it is like trying to set up a workout routine – it is not fun. It is a grueling and painful process; especially at the beginning. Most people make this even worse on themselves by also trying to deny themselves tempting foods, cut back on drinking, or quit smoking.  

To help myself establish the workout habit, I focused all of my willpower on waking up early to exercise. This meant that I didn’t worry about eating healthy, I didn’t worry about cutting back on coffee, and if I got invited to a happy hour, I obliged.

Willpower is a limited resource. I knew I could tackle those other goals later, but first I just wanted to establish the habit of regular exercise. Because I indulged, I did not get much healthier. In fact, I may have actually gained fat in the process of setting up the regular exercise routine. But the point is that I was able to set up the exercise routine. Once I established that habit, I moved on to the next habit of eating healthy.

Focus on establishing 1 new habit at a time. If you try to completely overhaul your lifestyle you are doomed to fail. The whole process will be overwhelming and you will never be able to establish the new exercise routine. [5]

So allow yourself to indulge in other vices as long as you remain disciplined and consistent in setting up your habit of exercise.


Every time I had tried to set up an exercise routine before I was always focused on a result. 

I wanted to run a marathon.

I wanted to get ready for beach season.

I wanted a “six-pack”.

So I would train for a little while. Then I would either reach my goal, or give up because it was hopeless. Then I would slip right back to my old routine of not exercising at all.

This time, though, I focused on the process. Rather than having an end goal, I simply wanted to establish the process of exercising on a regular basis. Because of this, there was no end. I simply continued to improve on my process, which I am still doing today.

I no longer suffered the pain of having an unrealistic goal like getting a six-pack in 8 weeks, or training for a marathon when I could barely run a 5K. Now I was just trying to go to the gym 1 time per week. Then 2 times per week, then 3 times per week, then I was trying to run this 5K faster than the last 5K, etc.

Because I was focused on the process, I was realistic. I only added what I could manage. This helped me turn a goal into a habit and now a habit into a lifestyle. 

So do not set an unrealistic, results-based goal for your exercise routine. Focus on establishing a process that you can handle. Then, when you have accomplished that, add a little bit more, then a little bit more, etc. Pretty soon you will have established a habit. Then that habit will become a lifestyle! [6].


It has been a long journey since I set out to become a habitual exerciser. My biggest ally throughout the entire journey has been patience. So often we overload ourselves with exercise because we are impatient to get results. We want hard abs and we want them now! But this is completely contrary to what will actually get you results.  

Great things take time. It has taken me over 3 years of persistent effort to go from zero exercise, to being on the verge of becoming a sponsored athlete. And it all started with exercising 1 day per week. You will likely live many more years, so there is no rush to begin exercising every day. Remember, a river cuts through rock not because of its strength, but its persistence.