How I Built Fitness Habits as a Beginner

Some people want to lose weight.  Some people want to gain weight.  Back in college I used to be the worst of both worlds- really skinny, but not lean.  Instead I had some extra padding, and a sizable beer gut.

I wanted to get into shape, to lose the gut, gain some muscle, and look more like all the other fit guys I always saw hanging out at the beach.  So I’d hit the gym every so often to try and put on muscle.  Except…I didn’t hit the gym consistently, and I didn’t push myself very hard when I was there.  I changed my workouts every month, as if that would solve my problem…it didn’t.

So after college I started dieting- cutting out the sweets and sodas, eating more meats, nuts and vegetables.  Except I made exceptions for whenever I was eating out, which was often.  Or whenever I felt too tired to cook, which was often.  Ultimately, I ended up following my diet for only about half of my meals.  And again, my “diet” changed every few months.

After a couple years of yo-yo dieting and half-assed gym sessions, I hadn’t made any noticeable progress; I was just the same skinny, under-confident guy with the same beer gut and utter lack of discipline.  I knew I needed to change, but my whole way of going about it just wasn’t working.

What I realized was that willpower alone wasn’t enough, and in fact was a pretty small part of the equation.  Motivation mattered, but I couldn’t depend on it- I needed ways to motivate myself, but also to ensure that I made the right choices even when I didn’t feel motivated.  What I developed were systems based on accountability, awareness, social pressure, and yes, even making fitness fun. 

Here’s what I did to initially build the habits of dieting and hitting the gym, back when I was still in my “newbie phase.”

I Took “Before” Photos…and Worked Towards My “After” Photos

The very first thing I did was take a few selfies.  I although I was wearing shorts and no shirt, they weren’t sexy; I let my gut hang out and didn’t flex or make any effort to look good.  I picked out the three best photos- one front, one back, and one side shot- and printed them out.  I then taped these photos to my bathroom mirror, where I would see them several times a day. 

I also posted the photos to Facebook and actually made the least flattering photos (the side profile) my main Facebook picture for a few months.  This was accompanied by an announcement of my goals for the next six months.  This step wasn’t strictly necessary, but it did add an extra element of pressure to live up to a commitment I had made in public. 

To be clear, I wasn’t getting down on myself.  Rather, the photos were a reminder that I hadn’t been living up to my own standards, and needed to change.  Once I started making progress, the photos taped to my mirror actually made me feel great because they were a reminder of how far I had come.  And once I reached my goals, they became my “before” photos. 

I Kept a Photo Journal of All My Meals

The next thing I tackled was my diet.  I had a great diet already- lots of meat and veggies, some nuts, and relatively few carbs.  I just needed a way to ensure I would actually stick to it.

I started taking photos of every single meal with my phone.  This forced me to me stop and consider all of my food choices, and made me a lot more aware of how well I was or was not sticking to my diet.  Once again, I added an element of social accountability by posting all of my meal photos to a Facebook folder so that my friends could see them. 

So what result did this have?  My dietary compliance rate went from 50% to 80%- meaning that I followed my diet for eight out of ten meals.  While that isn’t perfect, I started to see progress, and looking at my journal made me feel great about eating healthy.  Next up, I needed to start exercising consistently. 

I Tracked All of My Workouts

Since recording everything had worked for my diet, I decided to try the same strategy for exercise.  Every time I went to the gym, I recorded my workouts in a little notebook that I kept in my gym bag.  Additionally, I timed each workout.  Although I posted occasional updates to Facebook, this didn’t provide the same level of public accountability that I got from my photo journaling. 

Nonetheless, simply recording my workouts caused me to work out on schedule 70% of the time, and no more than a day late 80% of the time.  I also felt more motivated, as the journal allowed me to review my progress and see just how far I had come.  As an added bonus, it also became much easier to know what weight to use for each exercise. 

I’ve since stopped using a paper notebook, however, as I find fitness tracking apps are easier to use and make it easier to track my workouts.  Most recently I’ve been using a fitness app called JEFIT.  The week I started using it, my average workout went from an hour to 25 minutes, for the same workouts.  The reason is that JEFIT times your rest periods, and it turns out I was taking waaaaay too long between sets.  My workouts are now back up to about 45 minutes, but that’s because I do more sets now- no more 5+ minute rest periods. 

There are literally thousands of fitness apps to choose from, but aside from JEFIT there are two others I’d recommend.  Bodyspace is another free app that works great for weightlifting, and has stronger social features than JEFIT.  For runners, there’s Zombies, Run!  It’s not free like the other two, but this is one of the cleverest apps I’ve ever seen- it uses your phone’s accelerometer to turn running into a live-action zombie survival game. 

I Turned It Into a Game

Now I was starting to eat well and hit the gym 80% of the time, but I wanted that figure to be well over 90%.  I created a point system to turn healthy habits into a game- I would earn points every time I did something I was supposed to do, and lose points when I did something bad.  I tracked daily and weekly totals using my computer’s notepad program, and soon developed a drive to beat my own high score.  The result: my diet and exercise compliance rates went from 80% to 90%, and my body fat percentage went down a couple more points.  Success!

I’ve since found an even better way to do this- instead of using a homemade point system and manually tracking everything, I started using Habitica, a free app that turns productivity and healthy habits into a fun and addictive game that can be played alone or with friends.  I now skip workouts about once a week at most, and cheat on my diet only once or twice a week.  Habitica helped me build other good habits as well- like practicing my singing, meditating, and starting my work earlier in the morning.

But back to a few years ago: I was doing almost everything right, but there was one thing I still kept avoiding.  I couldn’t bring myself to consistently perform the one exercise I dreaded most: squats.

I Put Money On It

I hated squats.  I hated them so much, gamification, public accountability, and the desire to get into amazing shape combined weren’t enough to make me do them.  But I had to do them, so I decided to create consequences for failure. 

I told a close friend that I planned to do at least three sets of barbell squats, once a week.  I asked him to check in with me every week, and any time I hadn’t done my squats for the week, I owed him ten dollars- which I later raised to twenty.  While I did end up having to pay my friend a little bit of money, this did ultimately get me squatting, and I was finally able to build lower body strength and gain some serious muscle. 

I’ve since begin using an app called Stickk for this same purpose.  It allows you to make commitments and set forfeits- either financial or reputation-based- for failing to meet those commitments.  You can commit to publicly shaming yourself when you skip a workout, for instance, or forfeiting some money to a friend.  You can donate that money to a charity you like, or for extra motivation, to one that you hate- I freaking love that concept.

Interestingly, research suggests that financial incentives like those provided by Stickk are more effective for people who lack intrinsic motivation– so this may be more effective for people who haven’t really gotten into fitness yet, and less effective once you’ve built your fitness habits and really started to make them a part of your identity. 

These five psychological tactics helped me to lose 10-15 pounds of fat and gain about 15-20 pounds of muscle in the space of seven months, and I’ve watched firsthand as friends, family and clients of mine have achieved similar results.  The most important lesson I learned was that you can’t rely on willpower, or on always wanting to make the healthy choice.  Instead, what you need are systems- systems for measuring your progress, systems for keeping yourself disciplined and accountable, and yes, even systems for making fitness fun. 

Do I still do all of this stuff now?  Not necessarily.  I still take fitness photos all the time, since I’m on Instagram now.  Meal tracking is usually hit or miss- I do it for a few weeks a year to course-correct, but don’t feel the need to do it constantly and clutter up my phone with food photos.  I still record all of my workouts.  I’ve stopped using Habitica and Stickk  because I don’t need them anymore, but I might use them to build other, non-fitness habits in the future. 

In other words, as you grow, your growth strategies have to change– the five tactics provided in this article aren’t all ideal for advanced trainees, but they’re what I would start with as a novice who hasn’t learned to follow a diet or love going to the gym yet.