5 Painless Ways to Make Exercise a Habit That Sticks

For most people, 30 minutes of daily moderate physical activity is a good target, but getting there can be a challenge, and unfortunately there is no easy solution for those short on time. The simple truth is that in order to make exercise a regular habit, you need to move it up on your priority list. That said, if you’re able to mentally reposition physical activity as a more positive experience, it won’t feel like a sacrifice, and you may even come to enjoy it. As someone who has long struggled to maintain a consistent fitness routine and finally found some measure of success, I’m happy to share some strategies that have worked for me and others I know.

1. Lower Your Expectations

This seems like a pessimistic way to start a blog aimed at encouraging people to be more physically active, but I think setting a realistic and manageable fitness plan is one of the most important steps in making exercise a regular habit. The same all-or-nothing mentality that deters the best of healthy eating intentions can also sabotage attempts to become more fit. If after months of inactivity you launch right into a high intensity workout regimen, like running several miles at full-speed or starting a series of extreme fitness videos, you’ll likely feel miserable during and after exercising. Breathing so hard that your lungs hurt, or waking up so sore that you can’t move, are telltale signs that you’re pushing yourself too hard, which is counterproductive. If you come to dread exercising, there’s a good chance you’ll quit before you really get started instead of establishing a sustainable routine you can stick with for the long haul. So my advice is to start slow and build your way up as your body adjusts and your endurance increases.

2. Remove Exercise Obstacles

If you have to get in the car and drive five miles to a gym every time you want to get in some cardio, chances are you’re going to skip a lot of workouts. The activation energy needed to get to that first minute of exercise is just too high. That’s why I strongly encourage people to find activities they can do right in their own home or neighborhood. When the weather is cooperating, this can be as simple as stepping out the front door, walking at a good clip for 15 minutes in one direction, and then turning around and heading back home. For the busiest of people, I recommend purchasing a basic piece of fitness equipment for home use, such as a treadmill or ellipitical, if at all possible. (You can usually find affordable used machines on Craigslist or community garage sale groups on Facebook, since there’s always someone willing to sell.) That way, you can work out at any time and in any weather — you can even squeeze in 10-minute bursts while waiting for pasta water to boil or quizzing your kids on their spelling words. Exercise videos are another good at-home option if you want more variety. And if you prefer to use a fitness center, choose one that’s directly on your daily route to and from work so you deviate as little as possible from your normal routine.

3. Pair Exercising With Something You Enjoy

This one was a game-changer for me, personally. When I moved into my first house, I invested in a treadmill and positioned it near a television set so I could entertain myself while I worked up a sweat. Instead of agonizing about exercise, I actually started to look forward to this time as 45 uninterrupted minutes to indulge in cooking programs and talk shows that I otherwise couldn’t justify watching. (After I got into a good groove, I even started ratcheting up my speed during the commercial breaks, turning my power walk into an interval workout.) If TV isn’t your thing, you can use exercise time (and a handy mobile device) to listen to podcasts or books on tape, read your favorite blogs, shop, or even do a crossword puzzle. By pairing fitness with an activity you enjoy, you’ll create a positive association with exercise, which will make getting your daily dose so much easier.

4. Find a Fitness Partner

You’re less likely to bail on your fitness routine if there’s someone else counting on you to show up. Plus, going for a long walk or signing up for a fitness class is an ideal way to spend quality time with friends and family that you might not otherwise see as often as you’d like. Instead of catching up with your spouse or kids by vegging on the couch at the end of the day, go for a stroll around the neighborhood. Or if your loved ones live too far away to meet up in person, schedule a time to talk on the phone while you pound the pavement.

5. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

It’s normal to feel intimidated by friends and family members who are extremely fit and constantly chatting about Spin class and 20-mile runs. I know I do. But rating your fitness efforts against someone else’s isn’t constructive. You have to find what works for you and your lifestyle, and for many people, that’s a daily walk rather than a sweat-soaking CrossFit session. If you’re making an effort to be active, you’re doing something terrific for your emotional and physical health, and that’s something to celebrate — not feel badly about. Instead of comparing yourself to friends and family, share in their enthusiasm for health and fitness, and remember to give yourself credit where credit is due.

Study Links Healthy Lunches to Academic Performance

When leading preventive cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatston and his Miami-based team began monitoring elementary students participating in an obesity-prevention program, their goal was simple. “We wanted to show that good food was good for kids,” Agatston says. “And that they would eat it.”

Agatston, who is also Everyday Health’s heart health expert, has long been a vocal advocate for healthier lifestyle choices. He writes and lectures extensively, and is probably best known for his South Beach Diet, which he originally devised as a way to help his cardiac and diabetes patients lose weight in order to prevent heart attacks and strokes. In 2004, he founded the Agatston Research Foundation, which now conducts and funds original research on diet, cardiac health, and disease prevention.

This particular project, called the Healthier Options for Public Schoolchildren, or HOPS program for short, was specifically designed to test the feasibility of introducing a holistic nutrition and healthy lifestyle management program at the elementary-school level in central Florida. As HOPS co-principal investigator, Agatston revealed the findings at the October 2008 meeting of the Obesity Society. In short, the two-year HOPS study found that kids who ate nutritionally sound, high-quality breakfasts, lunches, and snacks — instead of the typical cafeteria food — not only had lower blood pressure and were less likely to be overweight, they also scored significantly better on standardized tests, especially in mathematics.

Of particular interest to the researchers was the fact that the 1,197 students who participated all came from families with low incomes. “The research shows that we can make a qualitative difference in the lives of children through proven, effective, and easily replicated programs such as HOPS,” says Agatston, who recently partnered with the University of Pennsylvania on the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, a multi-faceted health and wellness program serving depressed urban areas.

Teaching Kids Nutrition
Compiling this information wasn’t as simple as swapping white bread for whole wheat. Study organizers had to change what was being served in the school cafeteria and then they had to sell the kids themselves on why the healthy school lunches were better. The youngsters needed to actually prefer healthier fare to foods like french fries and chicken nuggets.

To help overcome the children’s initial skepticism over healthy school lunches, the team initiated a comprehensive educational program, complete with pep rallies where kids cheered for fiber and broccoli and appealing books that taught nutrition basics in a lighthearted way. “The educational piece was critical. We found that if you just put the food on the kids’ plates without any explanation, they simply won’t eat it,” says Agatston, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, whose interest in nutrition springs from the disastrous health effects of the typical American diet. “By purposefully integrating school meal provision with fun and effective nutrition education programming we have created an easy-to-replicate model.”

Wisely, the children were not put on diets, and the focus of the program was not on body weight. “We absolutely never used the word diet,” he says. “It was about nutrition and health. I feel very strongly that kids don’t have to be on diets. When they make good food choices and get more exercise, the weight will take care of itself.”

Agatston also doesn’t credit any one particular food for helping the children do better in school. Instead, he says, balanced blood-sugar levels from the healthier foods provided sustained energy that led to improved academic performance. “Just ask any teacher and she’ll tell you,” he says. “After the usual lunch, most students are on a sugar high that is followed by a crash.”

In fact, most children in America are overfed but undernourished, Agatston maintains. “Today’s kids are consuming an almost all-fast-food diet, full of trans fats, starches, and sugars, with literally no fiber or nutrients,” he explains. “Nutrients are found in the skin of fruits and vegetables, where the fiber is. And vitamins are found in whole grains. When you take the whole grain out of bread and you take the skin and the fiber out fruits, you’re left with just empty calories.”

And a multivitamin can’t make up for bad choices: “Ten years ago we thought that it could,” Agatston says, “but now we know there are thousands of micronutrients in foods like broccoli and asparagus. We have not figured out how to put those into a pill.”

Better Food in Schools
Agatston says he knew they had succeeded when children from the study went on to middle school and asked at the cafeteria where the HOPS choices were. “They realized they feel better and do better now,” he says. “And that they’re doing what’s good for them.”

In fact, getting children to embrace a healthier diet was the easier part of the equation. The real challenge was overcoming the skepticism and resistance of school officials and food vendors. Agatston’s team had to convince them that it was possible to offer cost-effective, nutritionally rich food. “The bureaucracy and logistics of it — not getting the kids to eat the food — was the bigger hurdle,” he says.

Today, Agatston and his fellow researchers hope that the success they’ve had with the HOPS program — and in particular with its effect on increased academic performance — will encourage school officials nationwide to reconsider what they’re serving in their cafeterias. And if they do, Agatston will be one step closer to reaching his goal of changing the way Americans eat for the better.

Healthy After-School Snacks

“How much depends on their age and physical activity level,” says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, former senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Outpatient Cardiac Rehabilitation & Prevention Nutrition program and now host of a live nutrition show on Sirius Satellite’s new station DOCTOR Radio. “If they are busy and active, away from the computer and running around outside, kids will actually self-regulate how much they need.”

Three a Day: Stocking Up on Snacks

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that because kids have smaller stomachs, they can’t hold enough food from meals alone. Generally three meals and up to three healthy snacks each day will allow them to meet their nutritional needs. Children who play sports, however, will need heftier snacks and more calories than a child who is less physically active.

Try to plan your kids’ snacks wisely and schedule them at least two hours before mealtime. With this many snacks, kids don’t need to feel full all of the time, so keep the portions small. A bit of hunger between snacks and meals will help them to eat healthier foods when they are offered.

“Give them celery and tofu cream cheese or apple slices with peanut butter,” Heller says. “Make mini zucchini-carrot muffins, offer low-fat string cheese, and have fruit already cut up. Air-popped popcorn isn’t filling, but it’s fun to eat. Just be sure to have healthy food in the house because there’s no reason to have unhealthy junk for snacks,” she says. “Make it a fun, pleasurable part of life.”

When providing snacks for your kids, it’s also important to keep in mind food allergies. If your child is allergic to peanuts, for example, you may want to purchase sunflower butter. “There are a lot of snacks that don’t have wheat, milk, or peanuts,” explains Heller. Talk to an allergist or registered dietitian for some more ideas.

“Food allergists with whom I’ve spoken don’t know why food allergies are on the rise,” says Heller. “But parents need to be very careful when choosing snacks for kids with allergies.” Talk to your kids and their friend’s parents.

In general, junk food once in a while is okay, says Heller. Be careful not to forbid any foods. “It’s very important to talk with your kids about being heathy and how good it is for you,” Heller says. “However, you can make it a fun and motivating thing to do. If a child comes home and says ‘Franny’s mom gave us doughnuts,’ you should say, ‘I’m sure it tastes good, but we don’t have it here because it’s not healthy.’ Once in a while it’s okay. Don’t forbid any foods.” Some research even suggests that parents who are overly restrictive send their child down a road to unhealthy eating, she explains.

Finally, be sure to recruit your kids to participate in the process and set an example by eating a healthy diet yourself. If kids are allowed to make healthy choices and see that you’re doing the same, healthy snacking will be that much more appealing.