Make Exercise a Habit in 3 Easy Steps

Make Exercise a Habit in 3 Easy Steps

Here’s how a psychiatrist approaches building a consistent fitness routine with compassion, not perfection.

By Pooja Lakshmin, MDUpdated January 14, 2022


The start of a new year can be a great time for reflection. It can also be a triggering period that comes with plenty of hype around resolutions and self-improvement. I’ll admit I’m an overachiever—like many of you—and so, every January 1, my performance anxiety tends to spike. That’s why I personally avoid New Year’s resolutions altogether.

I’m not the only one who struggles at this time of year. I know that Peloton Members aren’t shy about setting ambitious goals, be it on January 1 or any ole Tuesday. The problem is, it can be hard to live up to those expectations, especially if you’re new to fitness or restarting your routine after taking some time off.

In my work as a psychiatrist and author specializing in women’s mental health, I encourage my patients to pay less attention to numbers or metrics and instead turn inward and focus on their internal narratives. This means practicing values-based thinking rather than hyper-focusing on achieving a specific goal. Prioritizing actions that are aligned with your values (what really matters to you) is a powerful way to help you stay motivated in the face of setbacks and change. Leading an active lifestyle is an ever-evolving plan and, therefore, it’s important to stay flexible. Building this mindset, especially at the start of the new year, can help you stay adaptable for what’s bound to come.

Here are some strategies that can help you incorporate a sustainable fitness routine (or any healthy habit, really) into your daily life whenever you’re ready (January notwithstanding).

Step 1. Ditch Black-and-White Thinking

When attempting change, it’s crucial to give yourself compassion as you explore what works for you. The enemy you’re fighting is all-or-nothing thinking, which can turn a healthy habit, such as a consistent workout schedule, into a problem. When you engage in black-and-white thinking, the very practices that are meant to support your mental health and overall well-being suddenly become a source of guilt and shame.

For example, maybe you’ve gone a full week working out every day and then you miss a day. Your first reaction might be to throw up your hands and say, I can’t do anything right. This is too hard. Try to catch yourself in these moments. And when you do, pause to remind yourself that perfection is not the goal.

When those difficult thoughts come up—the ones that have you convinced you’re a failure—try a strategy called cognitive defusion. This tool is taught in acceptance and commitment therapy, a type of behavioral therapy. To put cognitive defusion into practice, take a moment to pause the next time you’re struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. Instead of indulging these thoughts (I’m a failure because I missed a workout), practice accepting the feeling (it’s OK to feel disappointed that I broke my streak) and then let it wash over you. Your thoughts do not need to control you.

Similar to meditation, the purpose of cognitive defusion is to avoid being “hooked’ by an individual thought or feeling. As an observer of your mind, you can imagine your thoughts as floating leaves or cars passing by.When your mind inevitably latches onto a leaf or a car (read: an unproductive thought or worry), try naming the process. Even simply acknowledging the feeling (There goes my mind again, running on black-and-white thinking) can help. Bad feelings or difficult thoughts aren’t the issue. It’s what we do with them that causes suffering and can take you away from the practices that you know are helpful. The idea is not to be perfect, but rather to let yourself experience the natural ebb and flow of life as a win.

Step 2. Redefine What You Count as a Win

Speaking of wins, what does success look like for you? Lose five pounds? Lift heavier weights? There’s no doubt these victories will result in a dopamine rush. However, when it comes to making fitness a regular part of your day, I ask you to consider this: Could success look like creating a healthy habit that you enjoy?

Go back to your motivation for starting to exercise and dig a little deeper. Maybe you want to have more energy so you can keep up with your kids. Maybe you simply take pleasure in being connected to a lively community that is sweating alongside you.

Real success is not about your metrics on any given day. To build a life that’s truly fulfilling and meaningful, it cannot be about climbing the ladder or Leaderboard. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. After a lot of psychotherapy and becoming a psychiatrist myself, which took more than a decade, I finally discovered what real self-care looks like for me, both personally and professionally. I also got clear on the great lengths I was willing to go to prioritize my own mental health. And while the work is never done, I've learned to accept my evolving self through the seasons of my life.

Step 3. Stay Committed When it Gets Difficult

Have no doubt: You will face challenges on your fitness journey. When these moments strike, it is key to return to your values to keep your head in the game. Remember, your values are what you live by while you are working toward your goals. You can live by your values even when you have not reached your goals.

For example, some folks relish that feeling of connection and belonging. For others, the value of service feels most important, and perhaps keeping yourself fit helps you live by that value. To keep the focus on values, collect data every day, not in the form of PRs, badges and Leaderboard stats, but rather in self-reflecting questions like, When does my body feel most energized? Which activities give me a sense of purpose or fulfillment? When do I feel most like myself?

Keep in mind: January 1 is an artificial time stamp, but the internal work you do to connect with your values or your “why,” will stay with you all year long—on and off the Leaderboard.

Pooja Lakshmin, MD is a Peloton Member and paid consultant member of the Peloton Health & Wellness Advisory Council. Dr. Lakshmin is a board-certified psychiatrist, founder of the women’s mental health digital education platform Gemma, and author specializing in women's mental health, with a focus on how broken systems impact women's emotional lives. She is a frequent contributor for The New York Times and is working on a book with Penguin Life, forthcoming in 2023, in which she discusses the tyranny of self-care and offers a framework for women to build authentic and sustainable well-being in the face of systemic stressors. Sign up to receive her guide to women’s well-being resources and follow her on Instagram.