6 steps to creating an exercise plan that works (and that you enjoy)

Most people agree that exercise is essential to health and want it to be an integral part of their lives. However, exercise often takes a backseat to more urgent needs such as work, family, and social obligations. Why does this happen? It’s simple, really. We don’t prioritize exercise because we don’t properly plan for it. Makes sense, right? We need to learn how to create an exercise plan that works for us and suits our needs.

Oftentimes we jump into exercise without first determining if it suits our needs, preferences, or lifestyle. If you hate running, why join a running club? If you dislike a gym setting, why pay for a membership you know you won’t use? You get the point. Your exercise plan shouldn’t look the same as someone else’s; your fitness goals, when you exercise, how you exercise, who you do it with and where should reflect your needs, preferences and lifestyle.

Though it requires some preparation, creating an exercise plan will make it far easier in the long run. A plan will provide motivation and accountability; it will also eliminate stress and the drain of decision making. With a plan, you can track your progress and measure your results—you will actually know if you’re seeing results! On the contrary, not planning will likely lead to exercise burnout and attrition. If it’s not fun, practical or sustainable, you won’t stick to it!

So what goes into an exercise plan? Here are some things to consider:

1. What are your goals?

Determining your goals is essential to creating an exercise plan that works. Are you looking to lose weight, gain muscle, or just be more active? Think through a long term goal, like weight loss, as well as a few short term goals, like being able to run a mile, or start lifting weights.

2. What do you enjoy? 

You might be thinking, ‘I don’t enjoy exercise at all.’ I understand! It’s hard work, and isn’t always fun in the moment. However, if you’re intentional about finding some form of exercise you can enjoy, you will be much more inclined to do it regularly. Plus, once you start exercising regularly, the endorphin “high” will keep you wanting more—yes, that’s a real thing! 

In order to discover types of exercise you enjoy, you have to get out there and try new things! Whether it’s rock climbing, swimming, hiking, barre, yoga, dance, cycle or anything else you can think of—go for it! Many studios and gyms offer free trials, so take advantage!

3. Where will you exercise? 

Do you want to exercise at a gym or fitness studio? Would you like to take group fitness classes or work with a personal trainer? Gyms provide variety in terms of classes and equipment, so if you’re someone who likes to change things up, this is probably the way to go. If you prefer one specific type of exercise, a boutique studio specializing in fewer avenues of exercise might suit you better.

Another thing to note: exercise doesn’t have to take place in a gym! Although the gym provides a variety of exercise options, it’s a good idea to think through other avenues of physical activity. If you enjoy being outdoors, this is a must! Even if you don’t, it’s good to think through in case you’re strapped for time and exercising outdoors or at home is the only viable option. Forms or outdoor exercise include be walking/running around the neighborhood or a nearby park, rock climbing, hiking, biking, swimming, etc. It can even include your kids or pets!

4. When will you exercise? 

Depending on your goals, you’ll want to come up with a schedule. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, or a combination of the two. Preferably, this would be distributed across the week, for least 4 days of exercise. It wouldn’t hurt to exercise every day, either! There is something to be said for overtraining, but that’s a topic for another post. If you’re going for the general 150 minutes per week, a sample schedule might look like this:

  • Monday: 30 minutes moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 
  • Wednesday: 45 moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 
  • Friday: 30 moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 
  • Saturday: 45 moderate-intensity aerobic exercise

Here’s another example, incorporating some vigorous exercise:

  • Monday: 30 minutes moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 
  • Wednesday: 30 minutes vigorous aerobic exercise 
  • Friday: 30 moderate-intensity aerobic exercise 
  • Saturday: 30 minutes vigorous aerobic exercise

Tips for scheduling exercise

When figuring out how to create an exercise plan that works, scheduling is crucial. It’s a good idea to plan to exercise on days that it’s most convenient (it might not ever be easy, but some days are more convenient than others). If your Monday’s are always hectic, don’t stress yourself out by trying to fit in a workout; do it on a day when you have more time. Even if you’re swamped, though, that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze in a quick workout! Even 10-20 minutes can get the job done! I know you’re busy (everyone is!), but 10-20 minutes isn’t a lot of time to carve out of your day to exercise. If it’s important to you, you’ll make time for it.

Now that you have a general schedule, it’s important to consider the time of day you’ll be exercising. Pro tip: don’t restrict yourself to a time of day—experiment with exercising at different times and see what works. If you know you only have time to exercise in the morning, than try that. If you can’t fathom getting out of bed before 7 am, try a lunch or evening workout. Flexibility is key: just because you miss your morning class doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze in a workout later in the day. Do the best you can to get it done, even if it’s not exactly according to plan. 

5. Who will you exercise with? 

This is crucial for learning how to create an exercise plan that works. Studies show that exercising with one or more people can increase your motivation, build deeper relationships, and actually make you work harder for longer. Plus, knowing that someone is committed to working out with you will decrease your chances of skipping. 

If you don’t have someone you know who will exercise with you, group fitness classes are a great option—especially if you’re looking to make new friends!

Another option is personal training (how I make my living!). A personal trainer’s job is to hold you accountable, motivate you and create a workout plan that’s geared towards your needs, preferences and lifestyle. It’s the best option if you’re willing to pay someone to do the planning for you, or if you know you need extra accountability—there’s nothing like putting money on the line! Personal trainers are incredibly helpful if you are new to exercise, aren’t confident in your technique, have injuries, or are just wanting new and challenging workouts.

6. How will you prioritize your plan (when life tries to derail it)? 

Now that you’ve come up with your plan, it’s time to put it into action! But let’s be real—life is going to happen—people and circumstances will get in the way of your efforts. Don’t fret! It is all a part of the process. However, if you can think through potential pitfalls to your plan, you will be all the more prepared to stick to your plan when inconveniences arise. Here are some things to think through:

  • Work: is your schedule predictable, or does it change weekly, monthly, or seasonally? 
  • Kids’ schedules 
  • Social and family obligations 
  • Sleep: if you aren’t sleeping, you won’t have sufficient energy to workout.
  • Inclement weather: think through a backup plan if you can’t do your normal outdoor! workout, or you can’t make it to the gym!

Let’s do this!

Now that you know how to create an exercise plan that works, it’s time to put your plan into practice! Be patient and trust the process. Do your best to stick to your exercise plan and you’ll see results with time. When you miss a workout, don’t sweat it; get right back in it the next day! Remember: the purpose of your exercise plan is to incorporate exercise into your life, not make exercise your life. Less stress; increased fitness, mental clarity and mood—who doesn’t want that? Get to it and have fun!

For more exercise tips, check out my post on the 4 Types of Exercise for your Strongest, Healthiest Body, as well as My Fitness Must-Haves.