Think back to the last time you set aside time just for exercise. I don’t mean the last time you got exercise, like when you played tennis with some mates or had to chase your dog across town. I’m talking about the last time you made it a point to go out and simply exercise.

With that in mind, here’s a question: why do you exercise? What motivates you to get up, put on shoes, and actually move around? In my experience, most people answer with a specific goal: “I’m trying to lose weight,” “I want huge, bulging abs,” or “I’m training for a 5K.” 

We tend to look at exercise as a means to an end. As discussed in our systems versus goals article, setting an objective guarantees you’ll fail, even when you meet your target. It’s far better to come up with a repeatable and enjoyable system you can do every day. Not only are you more likely to stick with it, but you gain the benefits of daily movement with no cost to yourself – and zero chance of failure.

Exercise Systems and Exercise Goals

There must always be a point to exercising, right? Even if you don’t have a specific weight loss or muscle gain goal in mind, in the back of your mind you secretly know that moving around will make you healthier. The key differences between exercise systems and exercise goals are where we put our attention and how we structure our activities.

When you set up a goal it requires looking into the future, deciding where you want to be, then doing what you can to get there. It might make you miserable in the process, but you force yourself to stick with it because you know there’s something good waiting at the end. You may actually reach that goal, and on that day you’ll feel great. That accomplishment high doesn’t last long, though, then you’re left looking for another goal to chase after.

But when you set up a system that means looking at today, deciding what you can do at this moment, then figuring out a way to repeat that action on a daily basis. If an exercise goal is to lose weight, an exercise system is going for a jog around the block every day. It doesn’t matter where you want to end up utilizing that jogging system, only that you do it, you stick to it, and you enjoy it.

Where we get into trouble with exercise is making the goal our entire reason for being active. This shifts our attention from what we’re doing to where we want to be, and it encourages us to treat daily routines like they’re punishments to suffer through. This is no way to exercise, and it certainly won’t encourage you to make exercise a regular thing.

The Perfect Exercise System, Ruined

My perfect exercise routine would involve regular bike rides, hikes across lonely mountain tops, and a trip to the gym every other day. I actually kept that system up for quite some time, but as is often the case with, you know, life, something came along to mess things up. 

A few winters ago I dislocated my kneecap (a 12-year-old kid helped me work through it). This led to years of slow recovery where I was able to walk around, but doing anything more strenuous would have me buckling. One leg stayed stronger than the other, which led to spine alignment issues, and back problems don’t go away overnight.

My perfect routine was now impossible. My motivation for exercising was extinguished, too, leaving me lethargic and increasingly depressed. What was the point of doing any kind of exercise unless it involved hiking up a mountain or picking up Atlas stones at the gym?

It took some time, but I finally realized that mourning the loss of my perfect routine was a flawed way of looking at exercise. A better approach was to focus on what I could do today (very much like the stoic approach to living), and then take that small step. Never mind the goals; I knew they were there, and I knew I wanted to reach them, but that’s not the point. The point is to do something every single day so that exercise is a habit. A habit that builds upon itself over time, and that I can stick to without any effort.

How to Make Your Own Exercise Routine

Don’t waste time trying to build the “perfect” exercise routine, because such a thing doesn’t exist. And don’t restrict physical activity to a once-per-week trip to the track, because that can become tiresome or limiting. Just do some kind of movement every day, and adjust or add more as you like.

To construct a good, repeatable exercise system for yourself, answer the following questions:

  1. What kinds of activities do you enjoy? – Everything is fair game, from hiking to playing Dance Dance Revolution. If you enjoy it for its own sake, you’re far more likely to actually do it.
  2. What’s a reasonable amount? – Swimming one lap is better than swimming zero, and swimming one lap every day is better than ten “when you’re in the mood.” 
  3. How simple is it to do? – Playing lacrosse means getting a few dozen pals together, having access to the space, equipment, etc. It can be fun, and it’s certainly good exercise, but don’t build your entire system around something this complicated, as it’s far more likely to fail. Go for simplicity to reduce the barrier to entry.
  4. What will this system do for you? – You aren’t focusing on the goal, but you should know what this system will bring you, if for no other reason than to measure its effectiveness. Maybe your system will help you ride your bike to the library without stopping to catch your breath?

These four questions will give you a basic version of your exercising system. Put it into practice right away, and adjust it whenever you feel it’s necessary. There’s no pressure, and there’s no failure, just a good routine that will bring you innumerable benefits over time.

Just Take a Walk!

Everybody wants to be healthy, and everybody can benefit from some form of exercise. There are benefits to your physical and mental health whether or not you end up getting thinner or more muscular. A quick walk in the morning really is all it takes to start a good exercise routine. You can add more walks, runs, or anything you like as time goes by. The only perfect exercise routine is the one you stick with in the long term. Otherwise, you’re just sweating at the gym.

Chasing lofty exercise goals is, ultimately, demotivating. Forget about where you want to be or think you should be; that’s a recipe for failure. Instead, put your attention on something you can do right now. Then go out there and start doing it.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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