The Key To Staying Consistent With Exercise (No Matter How Busy You Are)

March 11, 2021 - 9 minutes read

How to avoid pushing the pause button when life gets busy.

If you’ve ever worked to accomplish a goal, fitness-related or not, you’ve certainly experienced moments of ups and downs.

As is often the case, we tend to feel the most successful when life seems to be opening doors for us – when our work schedule is on track, our pantry is full of healthy food, and our routine is running like clockwork. There are very few obstacles to stop us from making progress.

But what about those times when life throws us a curveball? When we’re approaching a deadline at work, when we’re on vacation, when we’re injured, moving or our kids are sick?

There’s a common mentality that, when life gets busy, we need to take a break from our goals, regroup, and start again fresh when things calm down – yet this process may in fact be setting you up for more stress further down the road. In this post we’ll explain why the start-and-stop mentality is so detrimental and how you can adopt a better response to continue seeing progress – even when your days, weeks, or months have become a bit of a grind.

The power of consistency

Eating one salad isn’t going to change your pant size, but improving your nutrition habits over time will certainly alter your waistband. Going to France for a week won’t make you fluent in the language, but practicing your skills every day will give you the basics to at least converse with your waiter.

This is the effect of consistency and the theory behind “continuous improvement”.

Think of consistency as a dedication to making small improvements every day – or the idea of getting “1 percent better” all the time. While 1 percent on its own may seem pretty inconsequential (and it kind of is), imagine what the cumulative effects would be if you committed to that premise every single day.

To illustrate this, imagine you put $1000 into a stock that got 1 percent better each day.

After one day, you’d have made a profit of: $10
After one year, you’d have made a profit of: $36,780

All of a sudden, 1 percent doesn’t look so small.

The start-and-stop cycle

The same concept of consistency is true of exercise. The more regularly we work out, the better our bodies are able to piggyback on the improvements we made yesterday to see faster and more profound results.

And yet time and time again we see the same thing. People take the leap to get started with exercise, they begin to see progress, then their lives get busy and they push pause. They take a break, clear their schedule, and, when things eventually feel like they’re falling back into place, they start again – but now they’re back at zero. And around and around in a circle they go.

With all these starts and stops, it becomes impossible to gain any momentum toward your goals and it can begin to feel like exercise isn’t worth the effort. Working out starts to feel like a daunting task and, more often than not, these people end up falling off track altogether.

Related: How To Get Back On Track After A Break From Fitness

Why we press pause

So why do we gravitate toward pushing pause on exercise when life gets busy?

It’s easy to say that we take a break because we’re overwhelmed or because we don’t have time. That adding a 60 minute workout into our day would actually bring us more stress than it would alleviate. And while very likely true, that response exposes something deeper about how we evaluate success and failure.

Since we were in grade school, we’ve been taught the concept of extremes. Pass or fail. Yes or no. Black or white. All or nothing. And because of this point of reference, many of us fail to recognize the grey area that lies in-between the poles. We’re so focused on what we feel success should look like, that we don’t notice all the other ways we could be consistent when a change to our routine makes it challenging to exercise in the way we intended.

Couldn’t fit in your 5km run but took a 20 minute walk on the seawall instead? That’s success. Unable to do your full workout but found time for 10 minutes here and there? That’s also success.

Every little action counts. Every tiny habit is progress. By changing our perspective from what exercise should look like to what exercise can look like, we’re opening up the option to stay consistent with activity in a way that works for us right now. It may not be perfect and it may not be pretty, but it’s something, and that’s what opens the door for us to make continuous improvement.

How to implement a scaled system

The first step to adopting this new mindset is to understand the mechanics behind it. To do that, imagine two lights in your house: one that’s wired to an on/off switch, and the other that’s controlled by a dimmer.

When you’re using the first option, the light is either on or it’s off. You get full brightness or complete darkness, and nothing in between. That’s the “all-or-nothing” mentality. But with the second option, you can create bright light for studying, mood light for a romantic dinner, mid-light for watching TV…all different lighting for all different circumstances. This is the “always something” mentality.

Once that concept is clear in your mind, the rest of the process is relatively simple. Now imagine that exercise lies on the same type of dimmer – a spectrum with one end representing 0 (or “sedentary behaviour”) and the other representing 10 (or “intense daily training”). Using this visual, take a look at your life and determine where on the spectrum you can adjust your activity to right now. Are you super busy at work? Maybe you’re at a “3” and can complete a 10 minute bodyweight workout beside your bed each morning. Have things calmed down? Maybe you’re up to a “6” and can complete a few hour-long gym workouts each week.

Wherever you’re at today, the point is not to be perfect, it’s just about showing up. When you have the time, do more. When you don’t, do less. But, no matter what, don’t turn it off.

Related: What People Who Exercise Regularly Do Differently

Final thoughts

It’s easy to get hung up on the “all-or-nothing” mentality of either doing things right, or not at all. But is exercising once a week, when you planned for three, better than doing nothing? We sure think so.

Just because you can’t stick to the optimal schedule, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick to it at all. Healthy habits are built over time so start slow, adjust your scale up or down as life changes, and continue to see that consistency pay off with better strength, more energy, and a renewed confidence to live the life you want.

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