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Get your brain on board

Tired of starting and stopping your exercise routine?

Story by Kristin Castner + Photos by Photography by Anne

One of the most common requests from people working on improving their health is advice on how to get more consistent exercise. It’s fantastic that this comes up so often, because getting movement in our bodies is one of the pillars of good health, along with eating clean food, staying adequately hydrated, getting good sleep and fostering a positive mindset. But the mere fact that it comes up so often illustrates just how hard it is to find that initial motivation, or stick with it once they start.

Let’s be honest. The only way to get more exercise in our lives is to commit to and follow through on moving our bodies more. However, there are some practical strategies that can improve our odds of having a positive experience. What happens when we have a positive experience? We seek out that experience again and again.

Change by nature is hard. Our subconscious brains operate in a way to encourage status quo, because it is familiar and we know we can survive it. Change, on the other hand, is unfamiliar, so it raises questions in our brains as to whether it is survivable. Starting an exercise routine is change, plain and simple, and so it is important to find a way to lessen the negative vibes that come with that. Here’s how we can do that.

1. Remove the chaos

The first thing that typically comes up when starting a new routine is, “When will I do that?” We all have 1,000 things going on and a million reasons why we have no time. This is the chaos that we live in. So once someone has committed to get exercise into his or her life, it’s important to remove the chaos. The easiest way to do this is through scheduling. If something is important enough not to be missed, we put it on our calendar and set reminders. We identify the right time for the event and we protect that time by getting it into our calendar. This is how to remove the chaos that often comes with starting a new routine of any sort, but particularly when dealing with exercise – something that many of us have a love/hate relationship with. You don’t ignore that doctor’s appointment on your calendar, or your lunch date with friends because those commitments are real, they are important, and they are your responsibility. Adding your workouts to your calendar will remove the chaos surrounding “how do I fit that in?” and it will signify the commitment you are making to yourself and your health. Adding it to the calendar makes it real, important and your responsibility. This is the first step in building positive vibes around initiating an exercise routine.

When you schedule your workouts, they become much like anything else you do every day, such as brushing your teeth, washing your face or walking your dog. You don’t think much about it; it’s just something you do every day.

2. Address fear of failure

Fear of failure can stop us in our tracks. Nobody wants to fail. It’s not a motivating experience. But all too often when we are setting out to try something new, we immediately set ourselves up for failure by biting off more than we can chew. For example, someone just starting an exercise routine will set a goal to be at the gym five days a week. However, because that is such a huge change from their current situation, it is highly likely that they don’t make it all five days. And the first time they miss a day, they immediately feel like a failure. They set a goal, and they failed. See? They weren’t meant to do this. Maybe you’ve experienced this before. Here’s the thing. Setting a small goal, like going from zero days a week at the gym to one day a week, and accomplishing that goal, is a huge win! It represents success. And with that comes a positive experience that is the foundation for even more change in the future. I like to remind people that small hinges swing big doors. All it takes is a small movement in the right direction to build a foundation for bigger things down the road.

3. Give yourself an out

Have you even been faced with making an important decision, but struggled with it because the decision felt permanent or set in stone? For many of us, deciding to start something new feels like a major commitment, and that’s why we procrastinate. Believe it or not, we can get past procrastination and get further down the path to change if we simply negotiate a deal with ourselves about how we are going to approach this new project. The deal includes three parts: (1) a trial period, (2) unwavering commitment during the trial period and (3) a judgment-free out. Let’s say you are going to start a new exercise routine. You determine that you are going to start going to the gym once a week. You pick the day and time that you’ll go and you get it on your calendar. Next, you determine your trial period. During this period, you are going to have an unwavering commitment to your weekly workout. The trial period has to be long enough to be meaningful, but not so long that it feels permanent. I suggest at least eight weeks. For those eight weeks, there are no excuses. You get your workout done. If need be, you keep reminding yourself, “I only have to do this for X more weeks.”

The judgment-free out is this: if, after the 8-week trial period, you believe it’s not right for you, for any reason, you can make a change. Maybe you change the time, the date, the frequency, or what type of workout you are doing. Maybe you even decide that working out is not for you. Whatever you decide after eight weeks, there is no judgment, no putting yourself down. You just pat yourself on the back for trying something new. Maybe this sounds counter to the goal of starting and sticking with an exercise routine, but most times it works in favor of sticking with it. Why? Well, after the trial period, most people see a benefit – physically, mentally or both. They equate the trial period with a positive experience that they want to keep in their lives, and so they keep going.

4. Keep it positive

When something is associated with positive feelings, it becomes second nature.

When starting something new, whether it’s an exercise routine or something entirely different, it’s important to strategically set up a framework that can create and reinforce positive experiences. Removing the chaos, addressing the fear of failure and giving ourselves an out are all ways we can mentally prepare for starting a new routine. When it comes to exercise, drinking lots of water and getting a buddy are two additional strategies to help keep the experience positive.

These are steps I take people through whenever they want to make change in their lives, because it allows them to create small changes in their behaviors that lead to bigger changes in their health, career, relationships, and life in general. Just remember, when something is associated with positive feelings, it becomes second nature. That is where true change happens and new habits are formed.


Kristin Castner is a certified health and lifestyle coach. She received her certification from Health Coach Institute in June 2018 and works with clients across the United States. Prior to starting her health coaching practice, she spent more than 20 years in the investment business, where she held a variety of executive leadership positions. She began her own health transformation in her late 30s as the burden of career success increasingly put her health and future happiness at stake. That journey eventually led her to leave the corporate life and cold climate of western New York, moving to Hilton Head Island in 2016 with her husband, Steve, and their two King Charles Spaniels, Tiki and Ziggy.