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Consistent Habits Are the Key to Fitness

It's easy to get fired up about a challenging new fitness program. But when the enthusiasm dries up, then what? Small wins formed by consistent habits are the key to getting and staying fit.

By
Brock Armstrong
6-minute read
Episode #495
The Quick And Dirty
  • Consistency, not intensity, is the key to long-term success.
  • Being consistent with an action can make it into a habit which is an automatic behavior.
  • Consistent small exercise bouts throughout the day have been scientifically shown to be easier to maintain and as effective as bigger single bouts of exercise. 
  • Using the criteria of "then what?" can help you choose your workout programs wisely. 

Let’s start with this. When you exercise, over time it creates a whole bunch of biological reactions that allow your body to become strong, fast, mobile, coordinated, and efficient. Different exercise types and factors create different adaptations and individuals react differently depending on their genetics, history, current fitness, and interests.

Even in one individual, endurance training will produce different changes than resistance training. That's why I think it is important to dip your toes into as many fitness realms as possible.

By keeping your fitness program varied, you can gain these (and more) benefits:

  • Stronger ligaments and tendons
  • Increased VO2 max (your ability to use oxygen)
  • Increased lactate threshold (how hard you can exercise)
  • Increased blood delivery systems (capillaries) in muscles
  • Increased cardiac muscle (a stronger heart)
  • Increased force production (how much you can lift or how high you can jump)
  • Improved balance and coordination
  • Increased speed
  • Improved ability to continue exercising for longer periods

Each of these wonderful fitness changes is helpful (and necessary) in different scenarios of our lives. So when your body is becoming efficient or strong, powerful or fast, your performance—not only in sport but in life—is enhanced.

But, the long-term benefits of these improved abilities are only seen and become meaningful if we're able to be consistent in our training.

You don't get and stay fit because of the 21-day program you did three months ago. It’s what you've done consistently in the three months since that defines where you are today.

Consistency is both the key and the most overlooked component of fitness. Put plainly, you don't get and stay fit because of the 21-day program you did three months ago. It’s what you've done consistently in the three months since that defines where you are today.

Habits

I wrote an article for the Weighless Life blog a while ago called Getting Unstuck. In it, I said this:

Have you ever wondered what it is that keeps us stuck at a particular weight, or a particular level of fitness, or a particular amount of money in the bank (etc.)? Well, I have. And I have to say that the answer is more surprising and simpler than I had imagined.

It is our habits.

This is how it goes: our behaviors/actions are based on our thoughts, and our thoughts are based on our inputs. Our inputs revolve mainly around our habits, and those habits are perfectly curated to support our current results (body weight, fitness, job, relationships, and so on).

From the time that we are children, we humans are creatures of habit. The more we do something, the more automatic it becomes. This is how we learn new things and then get better and better at them.

Well, you know what, the same is true for our fitness. We don’t get more fit from the occasional killer workout, we get and stay fit from all the consistent movement we do on a regular basis—some of the time without even knowing it.

Our current movement habits are the perfect blueprint to achieve our current life.

Our current movement habits are the perfect blueprint to achieve our current life. This means, if we have a vision for our future life, we need to develop the habits to support that vision.

Now before you get all excited and start purchasing some killer online workouts or looking up your local CrossFit box, let’s be a little saner for a minute and think about what is most likely to become a consistent habit. Is it running an ultramarathon several times a year for the rest of your life or is it setting a manageable amount of your day aside for your movement practice and adopting an otherwise active lifestyle?

Can you see yourself crushing a 90-minute boot camp several times a week for the rest of your life? And if you can’t maintain that, what will happen to your fitness?

The “then what” question is one we often forget to ask ourselves. If we are trying to develop good habits that will last us the rest of our lives, we have to consider what will happen if we lose interest, get injured, or the local gym closes down due to a pandemic. Then what?

The “then what” question is one we often forget to ask ourselves.

This is a topic Monica Reinagel (the Nutrition Diva) and I tackled recently in our co-hosted podcast, Change Academy. In that episode, we identified this style of thought as a great framework to evaluate what to spend your time focusing on.

“Am I willing to do this forever? And if I don’t do it forever, what will happen when I quit?” The answer to that question usually is to start the exhausting process of looking for a new diet, fitness program, or guru to follow. Again and again.

Consistent small versus infrequent long

You may be thinking, 'Sure, this all sounds great Brock, but how can I possibly get fit with only short little workouts? Don’t I have to change clothes, go to a second location, have someone shouting at me from the front of the class, and feel absolutely demolished to get any benefit from the workout?'

Well, let’s see what sports science has to say.

In a study published in BMC Women’s Health, the authors concluded: “... both single prolonged and multiple short exercise sessions with equal energy deficits for both modes had positive influences on the risk for metabolic syndrome and the AI (atherogenic index) in middle-aged obese women.”

So although the outcomes were the same, the single-session group engaged in one session of treadmill exercise for 30 minutes a day and the multiple-session group had three sessions of 10 minutes a day. Now be honest with yourself: Which of those styles of exercise do you see becoming more of a habit?

Right off the bat, most of us have commutes that could include 10 minutes—on either end—of some sort of locomotive movement. That's two sessions right there! Find another 10-minute chunk of the day to move and you're set. We call those "movement snacks" or "movement breaks" in my world. 

We call those "movement snacks" or "movement breaks" in my world.

In another study called Effects of Long Versus Short Bout Exercise on Fitness and Weight Loss in Overweight Females, the authors concluded: “These results support the hypothesis that exercise accumulated in several short bouts has similar effects as one continuous bout with regard to aerobic fitness and weight loss during caloric restriction in overweight, young women.”

For the twelve-week duration of this study, the women were assigned to one of four treatment groups:

  1. Nonexercising (that's the control group)
  2. 30 minutes of continuous exercise
  3. 2 x 15 minutes accumulated exercise
  4. 3 x 10 minutes accumulated exercise

So once again, I can’t help but think that in terms of long-term, sustainable habits, finding 10 minutes three times per day (or 15 minutes twice a day) to do an activity that you enjoy—or better yet, accomplish a task—can achieve the same results as trying to make it to the gym, studio, or even an online class.

The same can be shown for strength and resistance training. In this study, published in the Journal of Human Kinetics, the authors demonstrated that “multiple bouts of resistance exercise resulted in similar improvements in maximal strength and anaerobic performance compared to one bout of resistance exercise.”

In this study, the single bout group did three sets of lateral raise, lateral pull-down, shoulder press, biceps curl, triceps extension, pectoral fly, abdominal crunch, back extension and abdominal crunch exercises at 5 p.m. The triple bout group did only one set of all the same exercises at 8 a.m., 5 p.m., and 9 p.m. Now, admittedly, unless you have a machine or weights in your home, this doesn’t seem like an easy approach to strength training. But hopefully, you get my point. Even muscular strength can be increased in smaller but consistent workouts.

In one final study published in the Journal of Obesity, researchers asked the most successful participants how automatic their daily exercise was. Whether exercisers were heading to the gym or working out at home, did they do it without really thinking about it? It turned out that the automatic exercise was most associated with the participants who were consistent exercisers. So, we're back to habit again.

So, next time you are looking for a new workout, exercise program, or fitness guru to follow, make sure you ask yourself this important question: am I likely to do this so consistently that it will become a habit? Or will it take all my energy, willpower, and motivation simply to do it for a week, month, or maybe a year?

And then what? Your future self will be happy you asked that question.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.