21 days to form an exercise habit

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photoJames Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic

It takes about 21 days to turn new behaviors into habits that will stick with you. This month, take 21 days to build an exercise habit. Get up and march – or skip, dance, ride a bike, jump rope, run, climb stairs, play tennis or engage in some other fun form of physical activity – for a total of 30 minutes, every day (or work your way up to that). By the end of this month, it will be part of your life – and your life will be better for it.

Physical activity helps you maintain a healthy weight, lift your mood, reduce joint pain, sleep better, lower your risk of illness and diseases, and feel great. For people who have recently quit smoking, it reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It helps lower the risk of developing heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and countless other diseases. And it improves your overall health and fitness, even if you consider yourself fit already.

There are hundreds of ways to incorporate 30 minutes of activity into every day, whether you do the full 30 minutes all at once, or break it up to fit the 10- or 15-minute slots in your busy schedule. Here are a few ideas to get you started – choose a few that you think you’d enjoy doing regularly enough to add up to at least 30 minutes a day:

Walk – or do any other form of exercise – early in the day, before life comes along and gives you excuses not to.

Spend 10 minutes a day walking up and down the stairs in your apartment building, office, parking garage or shopping center – you’ll pump up your heart health while burning an extra 85 calories a day.

Walk during your work breaks – you’ll burn about 50 calories for every 15-minute walk, and you’ll return to work refreshed and more energized for the rest of the day.

Walk after dinner at least one night a week. Make it a regular date to catch up with your family, or go it alone and use the time to let your brain process the week’s events.

Walk your dog for 15 minutes, twice a day, and reap the benefits of lower weight, lower blood pressure, lower stress and a happier dog.

Heading to your local one-stop-shopping-mega-center? Walk the entire store – with purpose – before you start shopping. If you have difficulty walking long distances, grab a cart and use it for support. For even more benefits, walk the entire floor again after you’ve shopped, pushing your full cart along with you.

Use a pedometer to track how many steps you walk in a normal day, and use that to motivate you to add more steps each day, wherever you can – by parking farther from your destination, getting off the bus one stop before your stop, or pacing while you’re on the phone.

Ride your bike, or a stationary bicycle, for 15 minutes, twice a day – you’ll reduce your risk of heart disease, and you’ll burn about 100 calories per 15-minute ride.

Move your exercise equipment into the TV room and do 30 minutes of cardio while you watch the news or your favorite reality show.

Don’t have exercise equipment? Get up and march in place during every commercial. In just two minutes of jogging in place, jumping rope, or doing sit-ups, push-ups or step-ups, you can burn 20 calories. Multiply that by five commercial breaks and you can burn 100 calories during an hour of TV watching.

Join a sports league – who says they’re just for kids? Team sports are way more fun than jogging on a treadmill, and they inspire a stronger sense of commitment to showing up and giving it your best.

If you have a pool nearby, swim – it’s an especially good option for people with arthritis or balance issues.

Sign up for a race. Whether you walk it or run it, just signing up gives you the extra motivation to train and get in shape.

Dance – in a class, in a group, in a gym, or in the privacy of your living room. It’s a great workout, and a ton of fun. Have kids? Get them to dance with you.

Fire the lawn guy and mow your own lawn. Depending on whether your mower is self-propelled or manual, you can burn 200 to 500 calories per hour.

Even busy people can find a way to fit in 30 minutes of activity if they make it a priority, and your health is a pretty big priority. Think of this as a prescription – it’s that important. Give it 21 days, and see how much better you feel – and how much you’re looking forward to that next walk.


James Beckerman, M.D. is a Providence Medical Group cardiologist and author of “The Flex Diet: Design-Your-Own Weight Loss Plan” (Simon & Schuster, 2010). He sees patients at Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic, located at 9427 SW Barnes Road, Suite 498, Portland. For more information about the clinic’s services, call 503-216-0900.