Dr. Chinara Tate: Making Exercise A Habit Isn't About Willpower

Two weeks prior to quarantine I had the good fortune of finding a new residence with a spacious private outdoor terrace. I had no idea how precious that space would become. Growing up in relatively cramped New York City apartments it was simply something I always wantedfor gardening, sun, fresh air and, importantly, a place of retreat from the hectic, bustling Manhattan streets. With quarantine came the shut down of my primary oasis: the gym. 

While many took to outdoor running for exercise, I found that it simply didn’t work for me. Going to the gym after work wasn’t just a ritualit was an entrance into a space where I could totally zone out, focus on myself completely uninterrupted, or choose to socialize with a community of people on a similar mission. As a Black woman in NYC, the streets offer no such reprieve. Concerns about my ability to outrun potential danger already fatigued from running a few miles looms in the background on daily excursions, particularly with a mask on. Further, it’s hot. Running in the heat sweating before I even start just isn’t my thing. Outside is for walkingrunning if and only when necessary.

Commitment and willpower help get us started, but it’s making things as frictionless as possible that keep us going.

With gyms closed and the probability of consistent outdoor runs nixed, I turned to my home, my terrace and the stairs of my apartment building. This seemed simple enough, and I had a great go at some semblance of a routine until my motivation waned to nil. I should have seen that coming. Tons of studies suggest that, contrary to popular belief, staying motivated to keep up good habits has nothing to do with willpower. Instead it has everything to do with one question: How do I make this as easy as possible? Commitment and willpower help get us started, but it’s making things as frictionless as possible that keep us going.

With this in mind I decided that starting a new exercise regimen would have to begin with something low level, brief and easily accomplished - walking. After not doing any exercise for weeks, starting simple was achievable and even enjoyable. I'd listen to podcasts on 20-30 minute walks daily (usually NPR Hidden Brain) and rarely missed a morning. 

As the laws of physics predict, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and scaffolding additional exercise on this simple one has been an essential part of building a regular, steady routine. After my walk, I hit 8 flights of stairs 4-5x then get on the terrace for alternating jump and battle ropes, walking lunges and push-ups. My partner and son often join in which always makes things fun and light - even when the workout is intense.

Post-workout recovery includes the essentials water, electrolytes, protein, carbs and omega-3s. My typical go-to’s are:

  • Green smoothie w/ flax (omega-3s) + avo egg
  • Avo toast topped with chili flakes and Pearl Street Caviar (omega-3s)
  • Greek yogurt + diced apple + walnuts (omega-3s)

The Gist

  • To build a new exercise routine start with an easy and, ideally, fun one.
  • Use the easy routine as your scaffold. Once it's a stable habit, build on it.
  • Post-workout, you're likely hungry and depleted. Have your electrolyte-protein-carb-omega-3 combo recovery fuel fully visible and ready to go.
  • We are most likely to grab what's easiest and in sight, so put anything that’s tempting but isn't the goal out of sight
  • Set yourself up for success by ensuring that your post recovery fuel is the 1st thing you see when you walk in the kitchen.