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Resolved to work out more in 2023? What science says about sticking to it

The Dose25:38How can I make exercise part of my routine?

If you’ve ever struggled to keep your New Year’s resolution to exercise more, experts say to start small and to schedule time to workout are key. Mary Jung, an associate professor at UBC’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences, shares her tips on how to make exercise a habit.

A pledge to get more active is a popular New Year’s resolution, but research shows that most people give up on their efforts around exercise and losing weight by February.

Researchers say there can be several factors as to why people don’t stick with it. Often, it’s because the goal may have been too ambitious.

“A key part is really starting small. We need to set realistic, routine goals,” said Mary Jung, an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) health and exercise sciences department, in an interview with Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s The Dose.

A group of people are in a shallow pool lifting pool noodles over their heads as part of a water fitness class.
Researchers encourage people to try different activities when they’re new to working out. (Aisha El Gayar)

Sticking to a new exercise routine can be challenging, as it involves a series of behaviors like getting dressed, checking the weather, and then doing the activity, says Kathleen Martin Ginis, a professor in UBC’s medicine department and director of the Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Management.

“That’s what makes it exceptionally difficult to start and maintain. It’s not like putting on a seat belt or brushing your teeth or taking a vitamin,” she said.

Recognizing what is stopping us from doing a workout and addressing it can help us incorporate exercise into our weekly routine.

So if you’ve ever struggled to stick with a resolution or want to become more active, here’s what those who study physical activity and human behavior suggest for the best chance of developing a routine.

Why does it matter to you?

Before you lace up the runners, experts agree you should start by reflecting on why physical activity or losing weight is important to you.

“We know from lots of research studies that … people who are most likely to stick to an exercise program are the people who find deeper meaning to exercise than just losing weight or looking good,” said Martin Ginis.

“The typical New Year’s resolution of ‘I need to lose 10 pounds fast’ may get you into the gym or outside for the first few days, but it’s not going to keep you going for the long term.”

In fact, Swedish researchers found that people who made resolutions around approaching a goal with a positive outcome rather than avoiding something — like aiming to get fit enough to run the bases at a slow pitch tournament versus wearing off sweets — were more likely to keep their resolutions.

To help outline your priorities and set up a plan, Lynne Honey, a psychology professor at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, recommends the SMART goals approach, which stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

There are thousands of free workout videos online for people to use if they don’t want to go to the gym. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

“You’re working towards potentially something you haven’t been working at for quite a while so it’s really important to create goals that are actually possible so that you’re not just setting yourself up for disappointment,” she said.

She suggests being as specific as possible. If you want to run 5K by the summer, that’s a more concrete goal than just “getting fit,” and it can be broken down into sub-goals through weekly training, Honey says.

Start small

Most people take on too much when beginning to exercise, says Rebecca Lloyd, a professor and anglophone director of graduate studies in the University of Ottawa’s education department.

She recommends people start slow and recognize the movement they already do as part of their daily routine, like getting up from a chair or walking down stairs, and building upon that.

The next steps will look different for everyone, but for someone who is inactive, Jung typically recommends starting with 10 to 15 minutes of daily activity.

Walking is a good starting activity for many because it doesn’t involve a pricey gym membership or special equipment, she says.

Jung says to also start with something you know you can do and build upon that.

“If I know I can lift 10 pounds and do a biceps curl, I’m going to start at 10 pounds. It’s in fact really important for me to experience success and accomplishment,” said Jung, who is also the director of UBC’s Center for Health Behavior Change.

Canada’s movement guidelines suggest adults get at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular or aerobic activity at a moderate or vigorous intensity per week and muscle strengthening activities like lifting weights at least twice a week.

Terri Roberts, executive director of Nova Scotia Fitness Association and host of The Pink Dumbbell Problem YouTube channel, says those first workouts can be challenging.

“I always tell people this is like learning a dance form or learning to play a musical instrument. You are not going to pick up a guitar and play like Eddie Van Halen in the first lesson,” she said.

Personal trainers can help build a workout plan that’ll be catered to your physical abilities, she added.

Remove barriers as much as possible

Time is often a barrier for people, says Honey.

“A lot of us like to talk about how busy we are but we all do still find time to fritter away a few moments here and there on social media or playing a video game,” she said.

“I’m not saying that people need to give those things up, but there are chunks of time that we could be using differently.”

Peloton became extremely popular during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people were working out at home. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Honey, Jung and Martin Ginis recommend action planning — making time in your calendar and adding details like location of workout — to help people stick with their goals.

“What we have shown and others have shown again and again is that the simple act of putting this in your calendar … will significantly increase the amount of time spent on activity,” Martin Ginis said.

Still, it can be easy to ignore that calendar on the fridge or the notification on your phone to workout when life is demanding.

“What makes it more challenging when we think about exercise is that, of course, it has to be volitional. We have to choose to do it, and there’s so many other factors in our life that are going on that act as a barrier to us engaging in this purposeful exercise,” said Jung.

But it’s important to remember that increasing your physical activity levels doesn’t need to happen in a gym, and that there are millions of free workouts available online, she says.

Martin Ginis says it helps to think through those kinds of alternate plans for times when you encounter barriers like lack of childcare or poor weather conditions.

“What this does is it takes off the burden in the moment of trying to come up with an alternative exercise plan when your babysitter cancels on you or when it snows and the sidewalks aren’t cleared,” she said.

Self-monitoring

If you want to stick to your goals, make sure to reflect on your growth as you go.

“The reason it’s so powerful is because it gives you an opportunity to gauge your progress,” said Martin Ginis.

Smartwatches can be one way to self-monitor your exercise progress. (Getty Images)

Tracking allows us to recognize our accomplishments which can help us “feel good about ourselves and perpetuate our motivation to exercise,” she said. It also helps to assess what’s working and not working.

There are many ways to self-monitor, but apps and smartwatches can help track our progress. And for the old-school trackers, a notebook also works.

“It really has to be what works best for you,” said Martin Ginis.

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