How I formed a daily exercise habit

I’ve wanted to be a person who exercises in the morning for as long as I can remember. I have journal entries going back years saying how “today is the day I’ll start a new exercise routine that I’ll do every day forever!” You already know I wasn’t successful in forming that habit and being An Exercise Person.

After over a decade of fumbling I believe I’ve found the three of the immutable laws of forming a daily habit.

1. Make it fun.

I’ve tried nearly all reasonable forms of solo exercise in the morning: running, riding my bicycle, lifting weights, yoga, you name it. Team sports are out because it’s too hard to coordinate with people each and every morning. Running seems like the obvious choice, but it has everything going against it including 1. being really hard especially when you’re fat 2. having a stigma around runners and non-runners so it’s hard to join the clique and 3. generally being one of the least fun things on the planet to be huffing and puffing at your limit right after you wake up.

I didn’t make progress on my exercise habit until the day I bought this cheap kayak.

The okayest chain store kayak I could find.

I have the luxury of living on a canal on the eastside of Detroit. I’ve lived here almost two years now and before I got my daily habit going I went out on the canal maybe 6 times total. I had originally bought this gigantic, cumbersome aluminum Boy Scout canoe because I thought it was cool. The primary issue with the canoe is you need two people to be able to operate it with any efficiency. Not to mention the effort required to pop it in the water and haul it out again.

Kayaks don’t suffer from these issues. This little plastic vessel is all fun. You can carry it easily with one arm, you can drop in nearly anywhere, and it’s easy for a total beginner to be out there splashing around. The effort required by one person is probably a quarter that of the big canoe.

Effort aside the best thing the kayak has going for it is it’s just fun to use. You get out onto the water and right away you’re seeing all sorts of cool animals: wood ducks, muskrats, Canadian goslings, huge turtles, you name it. The whole time you’re gawking at animals your body is quietly working away moving you through the water.

If you’re wondering if the activity is actually fun you should ask yourself, “Do I think about this activity even when it’s not time to do it?” If the answer is “no” you’re probably just lying to yourself that it’s actually fun and it probably won’t stick around as a joyful habit. But if you find yourself thinking about tomorrow’s activity with excitement, there’s a good chance you’re in it for the long haul.

2. Get started before you have time to complain. 

I am a rationalization expert. I can come up with a savvy arguement to get out of nearly any positive responsibility: The weather is too crappy. I had a hard day yesterday. I didn’t sleep last night. I didn’t hydrate enough. I have Important Work to do. On and on. If I give myself too much time between waking up and starting my habit I find that I’ll nearly always come up with an ironclad excuse not to do the thing.

Conversely if I hop in the kayak before I’ve had time to process what’s going on I’m usually floating down the water before my Gripe Machine has had a chance to boot up. I’ve never once hopped in the kayak, thought about it, and got back out before going for a suitable ride. With any form of exercise or self-improvement there’s usually a healthy resistance to the task and hand and then it starts flowing naturally. This also applies to writing and filmmaking.

This is generally more fun than languishing in bed.

3. It gets easier each day you do it.

There’s a line from the cartoon BoJack Horseman where he’s laying in the ground panting nearly to death from his attempt at running. A babboon (check this) in a sweatband comes jogging by, looks down at Bojack, and says, “It gets easier. Every day it gets a little easier. But you got to do it every day. That’s the hard part. But it does get easier.”

Physiologically this is absolutely true. As you gradually get stronger there is less perceived effort required for each exertion. If you were weight training you’d increase the weights and the effort would stay just a bit beyond comfortable, but with something like kayaking the water stays the same as does the weight of the kayak.

When it comes to forming a habit what’s more important than our physiology is our mental game. There are plenty of things we’re physically capable of doing that we just don’t want to do because of what’s going on in our heads.

After enough daily repetitions something magical starts happening. You don’t even think about doing your habit any longer. Like brushing your teeth it’s just something you do now. This is the final stage of forming the habit – autopilot. Any day without your habit feels off akin to something being missing. This is similar to putting on a seatbelt — you just do it mindlessly now. If people had to think critically each time they put on a seatbelt there’d be far more traffic fatalities. Autopilot is the way.

There’s far more to learning a permanent habit I’m sure, but these are the realizations I’ve had going from someone who “doesn’t” to someone who “does.” I hope it helps.

Additional kayak perk: you get to save drowning birds.