The last time you pried yourself out of bed at 6 a.m. for that morning workout felt great: you heard birds chirping; coffee tasted especially amazing; you had the energy to run laps around your family and coworkers.
Now if only you could do it more than that one time.
If you’re not a morning person, getting up for any reason—let alone working out—before 10 a.m. can feel like a terrible ordeal. If, however, mornings are the best time to fit in a workout for you, it’s worth trying to reprogram your day to get it out of the way first thing. Of course, that brings us to how.
First of all: morning is a great time to work out—it’s when your brain is freshest and primed to build new habits. “It’s that part of the day when your willpower is at its strongest and before distractions start hitting you,” said Maneesh Sethi, who has been studying behavioral psychology and habit development for over 10 years and founded Pavlok, a wearable device that’s designed to help the user stop bad habits. But in order to reap these benefits, you need enough precious beauty sleep. We’ve tackled how to get better sleep in previous articles so we won’t dive into it much here.
Assuming your sleep is on point, it’s still difficult to actually decide to abandon the comfort of your blankets to, say, go for a run. This is likely because of three reasons: you try to do too much too soon; you didn’t plan correctly; you failed to add in any positive reinforcement. Here’s how to fix that.
Start Small and Build Up
One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to start a new exercise habit is that they get very ambitious. Let’s run five, no, seven days a week! And do a strength training program four times a week! And hike during the weekends! The initial enthusiasm is commendable but ultimately dooms them because they do too much, too fast, relying solely on willpower to bulldoze their way through. Sethi recommends starting so small that you absolutely cannot fail to do it,He calls this the micro-habit model, where a fitness habit is broken down into the smallest possible steps. Just how small? Here’s Sethi talking about a small experiment he ran with 240 people in a Facebook group, who had all committed to going to the gym for the next 30 days:
For the first week, all they had to do was, after breakfast and in their gym clothes, walk out the front door. And that was it. They could go back in and sit down to do whatever they normally did. It was so easy to do it was extremely difficult to fail.
The next week they were instructed to go out the front door, head to the gym, and swipe their membership card. They didn’t need to work out. On the third week, they swiped in and spent 10 minutes at the gym. On the final week, they spent 20 minutes at the gym. By the end of this experiment, about 80% of the participants kept up this fitness-related habit every day for 30 days.
Maybe the thought of spending four weeks only to start working out for 20 minutes sounds like a waste of time, but that’s the sort of thinking that gets you in trouble: you shouldn’t aim for perfection right away. We’re trying to get you into the habit of working out in the morning consistently. “The longer it takes to form the habit, the longer the habit will last,” said Sethi.
Start so small that you cannot possibly talk yourself out of it and ramp it up. To start, perhaps you can try sleeping in your gym clothes or doing only one push-up when you get out of bed.
Plan out Mornings in Advance
“You want your mornings to require no decisions whatsoever,” Sethi said. If you, for example, wake up with your gym clothes already on, you forego the whole decision-making dance around changing into them and you’re far more likely to commit to your workout.
Another example: If you eat breakfast, you’ll have helped your morning self by knowing beforehand what you’ll be eating and what time you’ll wake up to have it without upsetting your stomach for the gym. Maybe you might wake up one and a half hours earlier to have a whole bowl of oatmeal and eggs; or maybe just a banana and milk would do 30 minutes before the gym.
Take it a step further and have a month-long plan all ready to go. Here’s a four-week sample plan to start building an exercise habit:
Day 1: Sleep in gym clothes
Day 2: Sleep in gym clothes. Do 1 jumping jack.
Day 3: Sleep in gym clothes. Do 5 jumping jacks.
Day 4: Sleep in gym clothes. Do 5 jumping jacks, Do 1 push-up.
Day 5: Sleep in gym clothes. Do 5 jumping jacks, Do 5 push-ups.
Day 6: Sleep in gym clothes. Do 5 jumping jacks, Do 5 push-ups, do 1 air squat.
Day 7: Sleep in gym clothes. Do 5 jumping jacks, Do 5 push-ups, do 5 air squats.
Increase daily from 1 set of 5 jumping jacks to 3 sets of 20 jumping jacks, 1 set of 5 pushups, 1 set of 5 air squats.
3 sets of 20 jumping jacks. Increase daily to 3 sets of 20 push-ups, 1 set of 5 air squats.
3 sets of 20 jumping jacks, 3 sets of 5 push-ups. Increase daily to 3 sets of 20 air squats.
Reward Yourself to Make Exercise Habits Stick
Charles Duhigg, author of the bestselling The Power of Habit, has written that a habit is formed via this three-step process:
- Cue: This is the subconscious trigger that starts your habit. Maybe walking into your kitchen is the cue to drink coffee in the morning.
- Routine: This is the habit: drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, working out, etc.
- Reward: This is ultimately what reinforces the habit. For coffee, that would be the feel-good alertness and the perception of increased productivity.
The short version of all this is, for an exercise habit to form it’s best to associate it with a positive reward. As an example, maybe you didn’t miss a single gym day this whole week. Why not treat yourself to the pair of shoes you’d been eyeing for a while? Or a spa day? Of course, the ultimate reward here would be visible, concrete results—looser-fitting pants, looking better in the mirror, pounds lost on the scale, etc—but those take time. Meanwhile, you can find suitable, non-food related rewards. (I say non-food related because making food a reward for exercising is an icky area.)
Also, note that none of this will be as effective as it could be if you’re not getting enough sleep. So before you even start to build an exercise habit in the morning, get plenty of those Z’s in.