Sticking with your exercise program

Published: June, 2009

Exercise shouldn't be something you do only when you want to drop those 10 extra pounds or prepare for the charity 10-kilometer run. To be successful, it should be something you do as routinely as eating, sleeping, and taking your morning shower. That can be difficult, as you may already know. The information below may help you stay on course when your motivation starts to flag. Remember, the result is worth the effort.

The value of maintaining an exercise program became evident when the results of the Harvard Alumni Health Study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The men who had been moderately active but later became sedentary had a 15% higher risk of death than their counterparts who had never been active. On the other hand, those who started and kept up an exercise program had a 23% lower risk of death, which approaches the 29% decrease in risk enjoyed by the men who'd always been active. But knowing the benefits of lifelong exercise or even creating a personal exercise plan will be of little use if you don't stick to your program. As you plan an exercise routine, you need to prepare for the challenges that await you, so you won't be thrown off track.

Make it personal. Your first step on the lifelong path to healthy physical activity is to identify what works for you. Give some thought to what kind of activities suit your lifestyle, time constraints, budget, and physical condition. Don't forget to factor in your likes and dislikes.

Make it fit. Are time constraints a big problem? Start planning your exercise sessions by making a detailed schedule of your week. Look for ways you can work in blocks of exercise. Can you get up half an hour earlier every morning for a walk? Would this mean going to bed earlier? Be realistic. Don't schedule exercise after dinner if you know that's when you always have to help the kids with their homework unless you think the entire family might benefit from a break and a brisk walk. Look for ways to add bits of activity and recreational exercise to scheduled activity time — an extra lap around the mall when you're shopping, some stair climbing, or a Saturday morning bike ride. After the first week, adjust the weak points of your schedule. The good news? As you become more conditioned, you'll be able to boost the intensity of your exercise without further exerting yourself. This means that you'll be able to fit more into your allotted time; for example, walking 4 miles in the time it used to take you to do 3.

Set some goals. Shifting overnight from being sedentary to becoming an exercise buff isn't in the cards for most people. What's more, unrealistic expectations will set you up for frustration and failure. A better approach is to set a long-term goal, such as walking for 30 minutes five days a week, and break it into monthly targets. During the first month, focus on walking three days a week for at least 10 minutes or longer each time. During the second month, walk an additional day per week (so you're up to walking four days a week). Add another day in the third month. Then, every two weeks, extend each walking session by five minutes until you reach your goal.

Chart your progress. Once you've set your goal, start measuring your performance. Record your minutes walked each day in a daily planner, or make a simple chart that you can post on the refrigerator. Either way, keep a written record of what you have accomplished. You can create similar charts for your strength training, stretching, and balance programs.

Reward your efforts. Meeting your exercise goals, even short-term ones, is cause for celebration. It reflects your commitment to improving your health. Find ways to pat yourself on the back. Whether your reward is small or large, make sure it's something meaningful and enjoyable. Avoid rewards you may regret soon after, such as eating an ice cream cone if your ultimate goal is losing weight. A better choice might be a new CD to listen to while you walk.

Getting back on track

Even the most dedicated exercisers sometimes go astray. Almost anything can knock you off track: a bad cold, an out of town trip, or a stretch of bad weather. That's why it's important to learn how to reclaim your routine. When you've missed workout sessions, evaluate your current level of fitness and set goals accordingly. If you've been away from your routine for two weeks or more, don't expect to start where you left off. Cut your workout in half for the first few days to give your body time to readjust.

The bigger challenge may come in getting yourself back in an exercise frame of mind. Try to keep confidence in yourself when you relapse. Instead of expending energy on feeling guilty and defeated, focus on what it'll take to get started again. Once you resume your program, you'll be amazed at how quickly it will begin to feel natural. Here are a few tricks you might try to rekindle your motivation:

  • Imagine yourself exercising. Recall the aspects of exercise you enjoy most.
  • Come up with a tantalizing reward to give yourself when you meet your first goal after resuming your program.
  • Line up walking partners for your next few outings.
  • If completing your whole exercise routine seems overwhelming, mentally divide it into smaller chunks, and give yourself the option of stopping at the end of each one. However, when you reach a checkpoint, encourage yourself to move on to the next one instead of quitting.
  • Rather than focus on why you don't want to exercise, concentrate on how good you feel when you've finished a workout.

One woman's story

Bunny Hiatt, a successful, energetic Florida realtor, finds she works and feels her best when her day starts actively. "I've always made exercise part of my life," she says.

While she was still in school, softball and cheerleading kept her moving. After having her first child at 27, Hiatt learned that her local YWCA offered exercise classes along with child care, which made it easier for her to go several times a week. "That was really when I first started working out," she says. "I noticed a huge change in my body and how I felt mentally."

Over the years, Hiatt has adapted her workouts as needed. She switched from jarring high-impact aerobics to more joint-friendly low-impact aerobics. She tried swimming and pool exercises to help strengthen her back — a weak spot ever since she wrenched it badly and broke her tailbone in a fall decades ago — but decided she didn't much like these activities. Step classes, a true love, gave way to gentler activities after she tore the meniscus in her knee a year and a half ago. For months afterward, Hiatt was told to stay off that knee to allow it to heal, a slowdown she didn't enjoy. "I found I was getting very grumpy. I was very anxious. I wasn't sleeping as well at night," she recalls.

Gradually, Hiatt was able to start walking again. At first, even short walks hurt, although ice packs and pain relievers helped. Now she has joined a new gym, where she works out on the elliptical machines or trains with weights and samples classes she hasn't tried before. Yoga proved far better than she had expected; it was gentle on her joints, a decided plus after the knee injury, and helped soothe her back. What's more, she learned, yoga enhanced her balance, mental alertness, and ability to stay calm in a high-energy, high-pressure job.

"I think you have to enjoy what you're doing or you don't keep it up," says Hiatt. She finds that early morning workouts free her for the rest of the day so that nothing — no pressing work appointments, no daily tasks, no lunch or dinner engagements — interferes with exercise later on. "I'm 59 now and exercise is still very much a part of my life," she says. "And I hope it always will be."

This article was first printed in a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. For more information about exercise or to order a copy of "Starting to Exercise," please go to

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