Exercise and Fitness|Exercise Basics|Prevention and Wellness
Exercise Prescription|Health Maintenance

The Exercise Habit

Last Updated May 2023 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

Daily exercise is a good habit and important for a healthy mind and body. Forming healthy habits is easier said than done. Most people want to be healthy. We know the things we should do to be healthy, such as exercise. Many people are motivated to adopt an exercise plan. Sometimes, they just don’t commit to doing the work it takes to sustain a change.

Experts have many different methods for creating habits. Some of them say doing an activity for 21 days in a row will make it a habit. Others recommend setting clearly defined goals.

What works for one person will not work for all. If you want to commit to exercising, schedule it as part of your daily routine. Try to do it the same time every day. Eventually, it will become a habit—as long as you don’t give up!

Ask about exercise

Before beginning an exercise routine, talk to your family doctor. This is important if:

  • You have not been active
  • You have health problems
  • You are pregnant
  • You are an older adult

Ask your doctor about how much exercise is right for you. The minimum recommended exercise is 150 minutes of cardio exercise and two days of strength/resistance training every week.  This minimum offers you several benefits of exercise. Exercise has so many health benefits that any amount is better than none. In the beginning, try exercising for 10 minutes at a time, multiple times throughout your day. For example:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator at work.
  • Go for a walk during your lunch break.
  • Do housework at a brisk pace.
  • Dance while you’re listening to music.

Path to improved health

What motivates you when it comes to your health? Are you goal oriented? Are you inspired by a challenge? The better you know yourself—or are honest with yourself—the easier it is to find an exercise program that fits you.

How can I stick with an exercise program?

  • Choose an activity you like to do. Make sure it suits you physically, too. For example, if you have arthritic joints, swimming might be a good option.
  • Get a partner. Exercising with a friend or relative can make it more fun. An exercise partner can offer support and encouragement. Also, you will be less likely to skip a day of exercise if someone else is counting on you.
  • Mix up your routine. You are less likely to get bored or injured if you have some variety in your exercise routine. Walk one day. Ride your bicycle the next. Consider activities like dancing and racquet sports, and even chores like vacuuming or mowing the lawn.
  • Choose a comfortable time of day. Don’t work out too soon after eating or when it’s very hot or cold outside. If you’re too stiff to exercise in the morning, wait until later in the day.
  • Don’t get discouraged. It can take weeks or months before you notice some of the benefits of exercise, such as more strength, stamina, energy, or weight loss. If you miss a few days, don’t quit and plan to start again next week or next month. Start again today.
  • Forget “no pain, no gain.” While a little soreness is normal after you first start exercising, pain isn’t. Take a break if you are in pain or if you are injured.
  • Make exercise fun. Read, listen to music, or watch TV while you ride a stationary bicycle, for example. Find fun activities, like taking a walk through the zoo. Go dancing. Learn how to play a sport you enjoy.
  • Track your activity. Keep track of your exercise to stay motivated. Use an app on your phone or a wearable activity tracker. You can even just mark a calendar with a checkmark each day you exercise.

How can I make exercise a habit?

  • Ask your doctor to write a “prescription” for your exercise program that describes what type of exercise to do, how often to exercise, and for how long.
  • Stick to a regular time every day.
  • Sign a contract committing yourself to exercise.
  • Put “exercise appointments” on your calendar.
  • Keep a daily log or diary of your exercise activities.
  • Schedule regular active household chores that require you to be more active.
  • Check your progress. Can you walk a certain distance faster now? Are you at your target heart rate?
  • Think about joining a health club or community center. The cost might give you an incentive to exercise on a regular basis. Signing up for a class or meeting with a trainer can also challenge you or keep you accountable.
  • Think of the benefits of regular exercise. Write down the benefits and goals, and keep them posted somewhere you can see them.

What are the benefits of regular exercise?

  • Reduces your risk and complications of heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.
  • Keeps joints, tendons, and ligaments flexible, which makes it easier to move around
  • Reduces some effects of aging, especially the discomfort of osteoarthritis
  • Contributes to mental well-being
  • Helps relieve depression, stress, and anxiety
  • Increases your energy and endurance
  • Helps you sleep better
  • Helps you maintain a normal weight by increasing your metabolism (the rate you burn calories)
  • Helps you stay independent
  • Prevents many types of cancers
  • Helps you live longer

Is there anything I should do before and after I exercise?

Start every workout with a warm-up. This will make your muscles and joints more flexible. Spend 5 to 10 minutes doing some light stretching exercises and brisk walking. Do the same thing when you’re done exercising until your heart rate returns to normal.

What is a target heart rate?

Measuring your heart rate (beats per minute) can tell you how hard your heart is working during an activity. You can check your heart rate by lightly pressing the tips of your first 2 fingers on the inside of your wrist to take your pulse. Count your pulse for 15 seconds, and multiply the number of beats by 4. To time the 15 seconds, use the timer function on your smartphone or a watch or clock with a second hand.

Most people will get the greatest benefit and lower their risks if they keep their heart rate between 50% and 85% of their maximum heart rate when exercising. To figure out your maximum heart rate, subtract your age (in years) from 220. This number is your maximum heart rate. To figure out your target heart rate range, multiply that number by 0.50 and 0.85.

For example, if you are 40 years of age, subtract 40 from 220 to get your maximum heart rate of 180 beats per minute (220 – 40 = 180). Then, multiply 180 by 0.50 and 0.85 to get your target heart rate range of 90 to 153 beats per minute (180 x 0.50 = 90 and 180 x 0.85 = 153). When you first start an exercise program, aim for the lower end of your target heart rate range. As your exercise program progresses, you can gradually build up to a higher target heart rate.

If you are taking medicine to treat high blood pressure, you have a heart condition, or you are pregnant, talk to your family doctor to find out what your target heart rate should be.

What is aerobic exercise?

Aerobic exercise is the type that moves large muscle groups. It causes you to breathe more deeply and makes your heart work harder to pump blood. It is also called “cardio exercise.” It improves the health of your heart and lungs.

Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, hiking, running, aerobic dance, biking, rowing, swimming, and cross-country skiing.

What is weight-bearing exercise?

The term “weight-bearing” is used to describe exercises that work against the force of gravity. Weight-bearing exercise is important for building strong bones. Having strong bones helps prevent osteoporosis and bone fractures later in life.

Examples of weight-bearing exercise include walking, yoga, hiking, climbing stairs, playing tennis, dancing, and strength training.

What is strength training?

Most kinds of exercise will help your heart and your other muscles. Strength training is exercise that develops the strength and endurance of large muscle groups. It is also called “resistance training” or “weight training.” Lifting weights is an example of this type of exercise. Exercise machines can provide strength training. Push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and leg squats are also strength-training exercises.

Your doctor or a trainer at a gym can give you more information about exercising safely with weights or machines. If you have high blood pressure or other health problems, be sure to talk to your family doctor before beginning strength training. If you have high blood pressure or other health problems, talk to your family doctor before beginning strength training.

What is the best type of exercise?

The best type of exercise is one that you will do on a regular basis. This may depend on your interests, resources, and physical limitations. Walking is considered one of the best choices because it’s easy, safe, and inexpensive. Brisk walking can burn as many calories as running, but it is less likely to cause injuries than running or jogging. Walking doesn’t require training or special equipment, except for appropriate shoes. In addition, walking is an aerobic and weight-bearing exercise, so it is good for your heart and helps prevent osteoporosis. Current guidelines suggest a combination of both aerobic and strength training throughout the week.

How much should I exercise?

Although any exercise is better than none, there are some minimums. Achieving the minimum on the guidelines gives you the most health benefits. The recommended minimum amount of exercise for all adults is 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and 2 days of muscle strengthening exercise per week. Try to build toward doing aerobic exercise 150-300 minutes per week for the maximum health benefits.

Things to consider

To avoid injuring yourself during exercise, don’t try to do too much too soon. Start with an activity that is fairly easy for you, such as walking. Do it for a few minutes a day, several times a day. Slowly increase the amount of time and the intensity of the activity. For example, increase your walking time and speed over several weeks.

Trying to push yourself too hard in the beginning could cause muscle strain or sprain. When this happens, you’ll have to wait for the injury to heal before continuing your exercise program. This can really sidetrack your health goals.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor before starting a new exercise program, especially if you have any health conditions. Once you start exercising, pay attention to your body. Stop exercising if you feel very out of breath, dizzy, faint, nauseous, or if you feel pain. Talk with your family doctor if you have questions or think you have injured yourself seriously.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Am I healthy enough to begin an exercise program?
  • Are there any exercises I should avoid?
  • Do I have any health condition that would affect my ability to exercise?
  • Am I taking any medication that would interfere with exercise?
  • What exercise is best for me?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity Basics

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Guide to Physical Activity

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