12 Tips for Getting Regular Exercise — and the Benefits for Happiness and Fitness.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 12 tips for getting regular exercise — and the benefits.

Exercise is a KEY to happiness. Research shows that people who exercise are healthier, more energetic, think more clearly, sleep better, and have delayed onset of dementia. They get relief from anxiety and mild depression. They perform better at work.

Also, although it’s tempting to flop down on the couch when you’re feeling exhausted, exercise is actually a great way to boost energy levels. Feeling tired is a reason to exercise, not a reason to skip exercise.

But even when you admit that you’d feel better if you exercised, it can be very hard to adopt the habit. My idea of fun has always been to lie in bed, reading, preferably while also eating a snack – but I’ve managed to keep myself exercising over the years by using all these tricks on myself:

1. Always exercise on Monday. This sets the psychological pattern for the week. Along the same lines…

2. If at all possible, exercise first thing in the morning. As the day wears on, you’ll find more excuses to skip exercising. Get it checked off your list, first thing. It’s also a very nice way to start the day; even if nothing else goes right, you’ve accomplished that.

3. Never skip exercising for two days in a row. You can skip a day, but the next day, you must exercise, no matter how inconvenient. (Lately, I haven’t been following this rule, and it has really affected my routine for the worse. I’m going to re-double my commitment to it.)

4. Give yourself credit for the smallest effort. My father always said that all he had to do was put on his running shoes and close the door behind him. Many times, by promising myself I could quit ten minutes after I’d started, I got myself to start – and then found that I didn’t want to quit, after all.

5. Think about context. I thought I disliked weight-training, but in fact, I disliked the guys who hung out in the weight-training area. Are you distressed about the grubby showers in your gym? Do you try to run in the mornings, but recoil from going out in the cold? Examine the factors that might be discouraging you from exercising.

6. Exercise several times a week. If your idea of exercise is to join games of pick-up basketball, you should be playing practically every day. Twice a month isn’t enough.

7. If you don’t have time both to exercise and take a shower, find a way to exercise that doesn’t require you to shower afterward. Each week, I have a very challenging weight-training session, but the format I follow doesn’t make me sweat. (Some of you are saying, “It can’t be challenging if you don’t sweat!” Oh yes, believe me, it is.)

8. Look for affordable ways to make exercising more pleasant or satisfying. Could you upgrade to a nicer or more convenient gym? Buy yourself a new iPod? Work with a trainer? Get a pedometer to keep track of your walking distances? Exercise is a high life priority, so this a worthwhile place to spend some money if that helps.

9. Think of exercise as part of your essential preparation for times you want to be in especially fine form — whether in performance (to be sharp for an important presentation) or appearance (to look good for a wedding) or mood (to deal with a stressful situation). In college, my roommates and I always made sure to exercise the day of a big party. Studies show that exercise does help.

10. Remember one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood, courtesy of Voltaire: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t decide it’s only worth exercising if you can run five miles or if you can bike for an hour. I have a friend who scorns exercise unless she’s training for a marathon — so she never exercises. Even going for a ten-minute walk is worthwhile. Do what you can.

11. Suit up. Even if you’re not sure you’re going to exercise, go ahead and put on your exercise clothes. Pack your bag. Put the dog’s leash by the door. Get prepared. If you’re ready to go, you might find it easier just to go ahead and exercise. Sometimes, a very trivial thing — like not knowing where your shoes are — gets in the way.

12. Don’t kid yourself. Paying for a gym membership doesn’t mean you go to the gym. Having been in shape in high school or college doesn’t mean you’re in shape now. Saying that you don’t have time to exercise doesn’t make it true.

People often ask me, “So if I want to be happier, what should I be doing?” and I always say, “The first thing to do is to make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and some exercise.”

I know, that answer doesn’t sound properly transcendent and high-minded on the subject of happiness, but research shows that you’d be wise to start there. And I’ve found that if I’m feeling energetic and well-rested, I find it much easier to follow all my other happiness-inducing resolutions.

* Just spent a looooong time reading Starfish Envy.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 46,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

  • LivewithFlair

    Exercise is Prozac for the soul. Seriously! In terms of mood management, nothing beats 30 minutes of cardio. Brain scans prove it! Here are some ways I get to the gym as a busy mom: do a quick exchange with another mom. Watch her kids for 30 minutes and then let her watch yours while you each get a run in. I’ve been doing this whenever the time allows. Also, you can do Jillian Michael’s videos for an awesome happiness boost. Thanks! http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com/

    • My bro-in-law once told me that not doing exercise is like taking a daily depressant. So true!

  • What if you put on your exercise clothes every day — people think you exercise but really you just don’t like feeling the restriction of button-waist pants. Problem solved.

    • Hahaha – yes true, but then you’d need to get bigger gym clothes every year 😉

  • I find it interesting that you of all people left out the one thing that I think is important for regular exercise: Find a sport or activity you love to do and do it with other people that love it too. I’m am amateur cyclist who races my bike and a swimmer who attends practices with a Masters swim team. Sometimes what gets me on the bike or in the pool is the opportunity to catch up with friends. The workout is a side benefit. You name the activity or sport and I guarantee there is a local club/team that does it.

    • gretchenrubin

      Well, the fact is that for me, there’s no sport or activity I love to do. I
      can’t motivate myself that way. So I focus on the reasons why exercise makes
      me happier, even if I don’t love the activity for itself. Though I guess I
      do love walking.

  • As someone recovering from depression, it’s so difficult to exercise. The fatigue is overwhelming. But knowing that exercise is an important contributor to recovery, I booked weekly sessions with a personal trainer a 5 minute walk from my home. Knowing that I have an appointment with someone makes me haul myself there.

  • Rus

    Great advice to keep in mind, especially with all of the distractions and temptations surrounding us. I posted a link to your site on Facebook and Twitter..You’ve got a great message here!

  • I recently started running and have been trying to do it 3x per week. I skipped a whole week and finally went last night and man, did I feel it!

    My issue is that I tend to let myself do less and less until I do nothing at all. I say “I’ll do 3 miles” and then after the 2nd one I’m like “Eh, I’ve done enough”. But the problem is if I do that once, I will NEVER do three miles again. So I’m trying really hard to make myself stick to my goals!

  • Joe

    I couldn’t agree more Gretchen!

    I had been sitting behind a desk for more than 10 years until just recently. Over that time I managed to pack on 20lbs. It seemed no matter what I did to improve my diet, I just couldn’t lose the weight.

    Recently, I’ve changed my entire outlook on life. I got serious about getting the weight off and living a healthier lifestyle.

    In 10 weeks I lost 15lbs.

    For 10 weeks I ran 5km 3 times a week. Swam 20 laps in the pool and did a little weight lifting in the gym.

    I lost the weight back in May and have managed keep it off by continuing to get a little exercise every day – not the crazy workout I used to get it off. I’ve also found eating smaller portions at meal time helps too.

    Luv what you’re doing here!

    Living Life By Design

    Part of my design was

  • This list is very important. Most people don’t realize there are several things that keep you motivated week in and week out to stay physically fit. I love this list and shared it on my fb.

  • Not a big fan of exercise, but i am psyched now! Thanks Gretchen, love your blog and book!!

  • I love your blog and book! I’m so curious about your exercise without sweating. Can you share more details?


  • Great post!

  • I have adopted my own version of “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and it really is life changing. I used to be a crazy dedicated workouter. Then life happened and my time get sucked up by other things and I wasn’t getting to the gym because I didn’t have the 45-60 minutes I thought necessary to get a good workout in. And I gained weight and was unhappy. Once I started giving myself permission to work out for only 30 minutes, everything got back on track. Most importantly being my peace of mind.

    Oh, Gretchen. So wise as always!

    I’ve also invested in cute workout clothes. I want a good opportunity to wear them, so I’ve gotta go to the gym!

  • SarahHP

    I find that building exercise into my day is the key for me.

    I walk from the train station to my office and back every day. It takes me about 25 minutes each way.

    It’s such a good way to make exercise regular – I can never make an excuse to miss it, it wakes me up in the morning and chills me out in the evening. My colleagues think I’m made but I like to think of it as active commuting!

  • I’m off to Pilates! byeeee 😉

    PS I like the comment below about getting some cute work-out gear…that sounds a very good plan! Great words as always Gretchen, simple, but true. I like the bit about not bull-shitting yourself (my words 😉 – how often do we do that about everything, weight, love, life.

  • I credit my regular yoga practice (5 times a week) for so many wonderful things, including my harmonious relationship with my ex husband (he practices too). I not only get a healthier body and mind, but I have also made a whole new group of friends from my yoga classes. It has enhanced my life is so many ways.

    My best days start with yoga, as the following article shows. http://www.postcardsfromapeacefuldivorce.com/524/a-day-in-the-l…ceful-divorcee/

  • I keep reading that the best time of day to work out is late afternoon, the reason for that is your body temp and muscle strength is at its highest during this time of day.

    The happy endorphins created by working out are far better than any anti-depressant, in my humble opinion.

  • Rebecca

    Great post! Very important issue. I used to go to step aerobics every day, do the nautilus machines, run on the treadmill and ride my bike outside, then the kids came along and suddenly no more 1.5 hr trips to the gym whenever I felt like it. Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good I did nothing. The pounds crept on and suddenly I “didn’t feel like wearing” some of my newly tight clothes.

    About 3 months ago I committed to finding out a way to work out at home and only held myself to one half hour of exercise of ANY sort. I bought a swim stretch cord that lets you swim laps in a little pool. Put a murphy bed in the guest room and got a treadmill for $100 on craigslist. And bought old Denise Austin exercise tapes for $1 for the VCR (yes we have one) I also tell myself I’ll do it only for 10 minutes if I really don’t feel like it, but once I get started it’s a lot easier to keep going.

  • great tips. i like #7. im not a huge sweater when i lift weights, but dang it is TAXING on the body. thanks for mentioning sleep. rest and refuel is vital to exercise happiness.

  • The most common excuse I hear for not exercising is, no time. But the key is building in the time. We all make time for what is important to us. We take the time to shower, eat, sleep(even if it’s not enough). Exercise needs to be put up there in the category of all these other necessities of life. It’s really a mindset.
    I have made it a part of my daily morning routine. I get up, brush my teeth, and go walking. And yes, there are mornings when it’s hard to get up but that’s where the mind must kick in. That half hour of walking means more than that little bit of extra sleep. That’s my 30 minutes of exercise built into my day. Yes, sometimes I force myself knowing that within a few minutes of walking, I will no longer feel tired but rather energized. And it really does give me a great boost to start the day.
    Find time to build it in; 30 minutes goes a long way.

  • helene

    Gretchen, how do you manage to have a challenging weight-training session without sweat?

    I really would like to know!

    • gretchenrubin

      The program I follow is one where you do 6-10 very slow repetitions at
      the very limit of your strength, to failure. I do six machines per
      work out. The room is quite cool, too. With this set-up, I get an
      extremely tough effective work-out, in a very short, unsweaty time.

      This approach is called “Super Slow” strength training.

  • Excellent list – thank you Gretchen. If I can offer my 2c worth on the practical side…

    Find exercises and activities you enjoy (at least a little bit) – this will help with motivation.

    Then make sure the time of your workout works for you. Some people have more energy in the morning – some in the evening. There are no rules, just what works for you.

    And what I find works for me when I need motivation to workout. Is to notice the feeling after you’ve done it. Bottle it up. Whether it’s the ellevated mood, or the relief that it’s over. Notice the good, bottle it up, and next time you need a kick up the back side – just remember how great it will feel once it’s over.

    Oh, and it does help that my workouts are 20 to 30 minutes long as opposed to the 1-2 hrs some people like to believe is necessary…

  • June

    I’d add making your exercise fit into your normal movement patterns. Try running/cycling to work – it can take up little/no extra time out of your day and becomes routine more easily. I also found switching to a gym right next to work (although it wasn’t the nicest) made it much easier to exercise without making a special trip.

  • runner

    It’s so funny. I had an epiphany re. number 10 myself last night. When I was in my 20s, I was a national-level marathon runner (and I continued competing through my mid-30s). So you’d think that exercise would be a no-brainer for me. Not exactly. I do walk to and from work (about a half an hour each way), but often I think “Gee, I don’t really feel like going for a run tonight.” The reason is that when I think of a “run,” I think of running for an hour or so. Last night I went out and ran for 20 minutes. Running home I thought, “Easy peasy. My pizza dough is rising right now and I can pop it in the oven when I get home. Very good use of time. There’s no excuse for not doing this every night”

  • it’s so hard for me to try and exercise in the morning as i always feel very sleepy after working out. i agree with the part that it is hard to maintain and to exercise regularly. but i have seen it’s benefits when i am stressed. that’s one of the reason why i push myself to exercise coz it “cured” my chronic headaches due to stress.

  • Kyle Whitford

    The way to exercise is to understand that all reading about it, talk, tricks of motivation, self psyching in any form is for one purpose– to get you in action.

    Skip all the prelims and ask these two questions– Do I want to exercise ?– ( the answer doesn’t matter- it’s just a way to realize you are bargaining with yourself.) Then, exercise. When it’s over ask the second question. Am I glad I did? The answer is always –yes.

    A note on happiness. The purpose of life is – experience. But experience is more palatable when one is happy, thus the happiness craving- delusion among those who are developed at the level of ‘enjoying the moment’. ( and tho there are stadiums full of seekers there is a level beyond that.) Have a great day.

  • oz

    Rule 13 – Be realistic. Having unreasonable expectations about the benefits of exercise will set you up for frustration. eg research shows that exercise, particularly women, doesn’t help with weight loss – it’s important for weight maintenance (http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=380)

    Rule 14 – Know the science. For example interval training is just as effective(http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=698), as are light weights (http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=819)

  • Cheska

    I especially liked #12. when I was still young, I enrolled myself to the gym but rarely visits it and exercise. yet when people asked me then if I go to the gym, I say yes. Being enrolled and paying for it monthly doesn’t really mean your exercising. Over the years, I noticed that I’m not fooling others but myself. Though how many times I tell them I do it and if they don’t see it working, who would believe it right? 🙂 very enlightening. thanks a lot. P.S. I want to share with you an article on http://sn.im/103mgq. it’s about Common Training Errors When Running. Enjoy!

  • These tips make me feel guilty about not exercising! Must start again. These are great tips. They address all of my main excuses!

  • I just wanted to let you know that I love this post. This is so encouraging to me. 🙂 Also, I linked to your post on my own blog (http://theantivanity.blogspot.com/). The link will post tomorrow.

    Thanks for sharing these helpful tips. 🙂

  • Tsareva Torf

    I agree with you completly. My main enemy is my laziness. It’s necessary to form the habit for me to exercise. I’m going to try to put advice into practice. It’s important to do something what you like. E.x. I prefer skiin, so i can do it throughout the winter. I like buy sport clothes, various pants, jacket. After shopping i need to wear these clothes. It can make me to go in for sport. Moreover listening to positive music during morning exercises can give you positive emotions

  • fivefingers

    Skip all the prelims and ask these two questions– Do I want to exercise ?– ( the answer doesn’t matter- it’s just a way to realize you are bargaining with yourself.) Then, exercise. When it’s over ask the second question. Am I glad I did? The answer is always –yes.

  • fivefingers
  • I agree with not skipping too many days between workouts. When I exercise every-other-day, exercise gets to be a no-brainer, and my mind stops whining about it. It’s like it has then become as automatic as brushing my teeth at night. And that’s the best type of exercise!

  • Jeanette

    Gretchen – first, thank you so much for what your project has done for my happiness just upon one listen to the audiobook. I’ve started my own happiness project for now, and am excited to have the excuse to perhaps go get myself a copy of your book, highlight the pieces that really hit me, and – yes – even take some notes. I figured you would appreciate that.

    I was also excited to see where your blog stands, now that I’ve been introduced to it about a year and a half in, and loved many of the points you make/tips you offer in this, the first post I read.

    I can only imagine how busy you are and how long your book queue is, but I have another to add to it, if you haven’t picked it up already: “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. I’m running my first half marathon soon, which prompted a friend to recommend this to me, with the note that he never liked running, but just reading this book makes him excited to start. While McDougall profiles the Tarahumara “Superathletes,” I feel like one of his most powerful messages is just how FUN running can be. The way we thought of it as kids – not something we have to talk ourselves into, and be sure to schedule into our day and coerce ourselves to do (I’ve done this, I get it), but also something that is just plain great.

    I hope you – and your readers, of course – have a chance to pick it up because I’ve noticed I literally now run/bike/urban hike/mountain hike with a big fat grin, and usually get one in return. And I don’t even think twice about getting out the door to do so.

    Thanks again for all that you’ve done for my outlook on life so far.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for your kind words! I’m thrilled to hear that the book
      (well, audiobook) resonates with you.

      I’ve heard a lot about BORN TO RUN but haven’t read it yet. Will get my
      hands on a copy right away!

      • Jeanette

        And thank you for the kind response!

        I hope you have fun reading that book. Besides the message about the spirit (the best word that comes to mind) of running around outside, I love that he mixed in a discussion of the evolution of the human (vs. animal) body and of running in general. Plus, I couldn’t help but feel like a 5-mile jaunt is manageable compared to the 100+ mile high altitude/sweltering heat races run by some interesting characters he describes. Nothing like perspective! So, all in all, a quick but inspiring read.

        Thanks again!

      • Gretchen, you need to read it. Such a neat topic and so much insight into a culture I knew *nothing* about. 🙂

        • gretchenrubin

          It’s going on my library list right now.

          I just read the Murakami book about running, which I really loved.

    • I’m nearly done reading ‘Born to Run’ and I’m really enjoying it. I’m not a runner (I do yoga, Zumba, and Barre Method classes). I just picked it up at my local library on a whim. I’m going to be sad to return it this weekend. Great story and many lessons can be learned from this book!

  • Nikki

    I run a fitness bootcamp and it has literally changed many people’s lives….. we’ve become a community and have spurred a social club from this. We have people who never enjoyed exercise, doing it becuase they want to and not just bootcamp. Bike riding, rock climbing, marathons, 5km runs etc. Exercise with friends or make friends where you exercise.. you’ll be happier and more likely to make a commitment to yourself and to your new found friends.

    Nikki Kamphuis
    Owner – Cardio-Core Fitness Bootcamp, Scarborough

  • Mary_baker91789

    I just finished read Dr. Travis Stork’s book in which he recommends a Daily Fitness Vacation. Choose some kind of exercise you can do and like to do and consider it your vacation for the day from everything else. Great idea.

  • Krdharma

    Very encouraging artcle.
    Col Dharma

  • Kay

    During the past year I have found that I exercise more regularly when I accompany my bends and stretches with listening to a book read on a CD , which I check out of the local library. I wake up excited to hear the next chapter and can’t wait to start my half-hour routine.

  • Leslie

    These are really great tips. I use number 4 to encourage me to practice singing as well. I tell myself I only have to go to the practice room for 15 minutes – do some warm-ups, and if I still don’t feel like practicing I can go home. Usually that does the trick.

    I did have my bag packed last night and I still didn’t go to the gym today, but if I don’t pack it the night before I definitely don’t go (unless I’m really, really motivated – but that only happens like twice a year).

  • I had been sitting behind a desk for more than 10 years until just recently. Over that time I managed to pack on 20lbs. It seemed no matter what I did to improve my diet, I just couldn’t lose the weight.

  • Rachel in California

    This sounds like you wake up in the morning and then choose whether to exercise. I leave for work before it gets light; if I want to exercise in the predawn darkness, I would have to set my alarm for 5:30. So I take a brisk walk at lunchtime, in my work clothes. It’s the best I can do. And that’s got to be good enough.

    • Calliope

      If it works for you and keeps you healthy and fit, that’s great! I’m jealous!  I have tried doing lunchtime walks in the past, and I get so busy at work throughout the day, I wind up skipping them. Also, my job involves a lot of sitting, so just walking isn’t enough to keep the weight off and stay as toned as I like.  So…it’s up at 5:30am for me. Sigh.  

  • Angela

    I like this list, but I would love to see “Don’t skip exercise if you only have a head cold,” or something similar – I find myself skipping because “I don’t feel well,” but I’m not really that sick and exercising may actually help (the same way it does when you “don’t have the energy”). Then, getting back into the routine is /hard/.

  • Incredible ! You sure have performed a great effort placing these inputs about exercise in place. These info are certainly of great aid.Personal Trainer Santa Anna

  • Bernlamanes

    started a Tai Chi class and attend open workouts 3-4 times a week! In a few months I have been able to start to reverse effects of a frozen shoulder pain I have suffered had for over two years. Simple and gentle stretching has helped release the pain and add a greater range of motion. Creating a new joy and happiness!

  • Susieq2046

    I really like the suggestion to always exercise on Monday.  It sets the tone for the whole week.  I keep a simple calendar on the wall in the master bathroom and note every day that I exercise.  It’s a great visual and I like tallying the days at the end of the month (or not).

  • I think it really comes down to finding the thing that you WILL do instead of fantasizing about what you should be doing. For instance, I dream about running outside every morning and running marathons…but I never do it. I did discover, however, that if I can watch my favorite TV show on Netflix through my phone  I will happily blast out 45 minutes on the elliptical or cross trainer without noticing. So I made a rule that I can only watch certain shows at the gym while exercising. It’s done wonders for my motivation because I really WANT to find out what happens. It’s not as glamorous as being “a runner”, but it burns plenty of calories and I feel so good after I often tack on a swim or a little arm work. 

  • Brooks@ahungrylife.com

    What we could do is to change the way we view exercise. So many see it as a necessary evil, something we “have to do” to be healthy, happy, etc. Change that perception. Exercise (or working out or movement) is something I *want* to do for myself. It is good self care. Change your thoughts, change your life. http://ahungrylife.com

  • EPRhyne

    Great tips! Added a link to my gym’s facebook page. Thanks!

  • adale

    that is so cool!!! all great words of advice . . . many thanks . . . 

  • Aspen

    A few months ago, I splurged on some cute workout clothes and running shoes in my favorite colors – after years of just wearing the same not-terribly-attractive old stuff because I thought it was silly to spend money to “dress up” to exercise. But, once I got the new clothes, I wanted to wear them and felt a lot better at the gym! So, I went more – it worked!

  • Jim

    Interesting article but I disagree regarding best times to exercise. I find the optimum time to exercise tends to be between 2pm – 5pm as my energy levels tend to be at their highest in the afternoon so my performance is better. I work from home and like to thrash through as much work earlier on in the day so I have more time for fitness and family. But to each their own.

  • Sam Paul

    Suit up point is very important because mostly people go to the gym in their comfort cloths but they have to be in proper suits like compression or Athletica Tank

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  • Dario Najera

    This is great..i Love it thank you…

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