Working out as a Keystone Habit

Making working out a Keystone habit can change your life significantly. Read on to understand more about the benefits of working out, how habits work and how to make working out a Keystone habit.

9 min read. Also available on Medium

Keystone habit, work out, gym

Why would you make working out a Keystone habit? Because we are made to move. Evolution has made sure that when we are exercising, good stuff happens in our brain and body. Evolution did not plan us to sit all day long.

Not being active would have been devastating to our hunter-gatherer ancestors as they would not have gotten food or would not have moved to better areas during harsh winters, so evolution made sure to nudge humans in the right direction: physical exercise releases endorphins and dopamine, reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), elevates BDNF levels in our brain (low levels related to depression), improves learning and boosts memory and gets you in better shape. 

Adding physical exercise to your daily life is a guaranteed improvement for overall wellbeing and benefits anyone in any age, in any field of work.

The Snowball Effect

Exercise can act as a mindful moment when you forget all the stress, issues at home or at work. It can be a social event when you meet friends and workout together. Working out might be something you do every now and then. For some, it might be a way of living, for others a way to make a living. It should be at some level a part of everyone’s life. It makes us healthier and gives us the opportunity to a more productive and active life.

The point is that working out can be used as a tool for anything. To achieve a specific goal, to maintain good health, reduce stress or even to battle depression. Antidepressants or SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) are used to treat depression and anxiety disorders and on average they work for one-third of the population. One thing that they do is elevate the BDNF levels in our brain.


BDNF, Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein in our brain that plays an important role: it improves learning and memory, has a role in survival and growth of neurons, affect neuronal plasticity and improves the connection between different parts of the brain. Lower levels of BDNF are associated with different diseases as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and with depression.

brain, BDNF, working out, SSRI, antidepressants

So, by eating antidepressants one goal is to get more of BDNF. Now here comes the good part: physical exercise does the same thing in our brain which is usually not discussed as much because there’s no money involved and physical exercise benefits everyone (disclaimer: medications are not bad and are making a positive difference. But it should be more commonly known that exercising has a great impact on our mental health as well).

The Snowball effect

The wonderful thing with focusing your energy on working out and making it a Keystone habit? The Snowball effect. If you put all your focus in getting your training routine done, let’s say three times a week, it will start influencing what you want to eat, you’ll feel more energetic which will give you a boost at work, home or at school, your sleep will improve… the list goes on.

Making working out a Keystone habit will benefit other parts in your life as well. You’ll start feeling better about yourself as you can run longer, lift more weights and hopefully start to see another version of you in the mirror. The goal is making working out a Keystone habit, which might be easier said than done, but it is essential to understand that anyone can achieve this.

One great obstacle that seems to plague everyone is time. Let’s have a brief look at that issue.

The Evil Chronos

Many people find it hard to get consistency in training or time to train at all. It takes effort to get a workout done and many refers to their busy schedule as in why they do not train. The “Evil” Chronos, the personification of time in Greek mythology, has given each one of us “only” 24 hours per day.

In one week, we have seven days. The hours in a week add up to 168 h. Remember all the benefits mentioned in the beginning? By exercising consistently for roughly 3 hours a week you can achieve those benefits. 3 hours out of 168? That’s 1,79% of the total hours of a week.

It seems hard to understand why anyone would not manage to put under 2% of their weekly hours to do something that will give them such great benefits.

I believe that it’s really the distorted mindset about time and working out that hinders people from doing themselves the easiest favor for a healthier life. People tend to be very good at finding reasons for why to not do something. This is of course understandable. It’s more convenient to tell yourself that you cannot do something because of insert semi-valid reason than just admitting that maybe you did not do everything in your power to make it happen.

mindset, working out, gym

Does it seem too simple? Sometimes simplicity is what we need to make changes. Try to forget all the noise around you and just go for the challenge and put all your focus on getting it done. Prioritizing is hard but it’s essential in achieving what you want. Try relentlessly to find a solution for every possible obstacle and just do it.

How to overcome an Obstacle

I challenge you to be a bit playful. Try to come up with a solution for any obstacle that comes in mind. See how far you get!

Below a few examples:

Obstacle: You are too tired after work?

Solution: Train first thing in the morning.

Obstacle: Must take care of the kids?

Solution: Get a babysitter

Obstacle: The way to the gym is too long?

Solution: Read or listen to a book on the way, do something productive on the way. Run to the gym as to warm up.

Obstacle: Too much work

Solution: for once leave the office earlier, or train in the morning or during the day. As said, physical exercise has so many benefits on your brain that working out will make you more productive at work and you avoid burning out.

Keystone habit, the habit loop, can-do-attitude, wall

The point here is to understand that there are solutions for basically every impediment if you use your imagination. And it’s about time to stop making excuses. Once we understand that the greatest challenge is changing our mindset and our habits, we are halfway there.

The Strength In Habits

As Charles Duhigg explains in his book The Power of Habit, Habitswork in a 3-step loop consisting of a cue, a routine, and a reward. As an example, let’s take waking up as the alarm goes off and hitting the snooze button.

The cue is what triggers us to behave in some way. In this case, it would be the alarm that goes off.

The routine would be to hit the snooze button, and hence we get

The reward to sleep for a few more minutes.

Many would agree that this is a bad habit. But by changing only one thing, the routine, we can change the habit to a better one.

Let’s say that you put the alarm far away so that you must get out of the bed and that the alarm would be next to a light switch. As the alarm goes off you get out of bed and immediately turn on the lights.

Utilizing the Habit loop

Now your routine has changed, from automatically hitting the snooze button to getting up and turning on the lights. If you resist the urge to go back to bed and instead go and make some coffee, your reward can be a nice cup of Joe. Or maybe a more relaxed morning, as you have more time than usual as you have not been hitting the snooze button for one-hour, risking getting late for work. Surely it takes some time to learn a new routine but once it sticks you‘re far better off with this new habit.

As our brain is learning something new it really is focusing hard and it requires effort and energy. But the thing is that our brain likes to adjust and tries to automate some of our functions. That is why we have habits, it requires less energy to react to something in a specific way than having to think about the solution.

By using the habit loop, anyone can make working out a healthy part of their life. In addition, you need to motivate yourself and make your body crave for a workout. Think about what you could achieve or why your life would be better if you worked out regularly.

Being in good shape when you’re older as to be able to play with your children? Reducing stress or relieving anxiety? Getting a nice Instagram picture? Understand that the choice is yours and what gets you going is important. But it really helps if you reflect and find something you want to achieve, something that deeply motivates you.

And let’s not forget the most important part, believe in yourself. You must believe that you can change your habits. When you to that, the rest will fall into place. Find your motivation, grind the routine, reward yourself and believe in what you are doing. Don’t listen to the naysayers, listen to yourself.

Here’s how to make working out a habit:


Find a meaningful reason for why you want to get in better shape or want to make working out a part of your life. It really can be anything, just remember that the more you reflect and find something that deeply motivates you, the easier it will be to achieve your goal.

The Que

This can be literally anything. Do you get the feeling that you have to do some exercise? Do you get the urge to binge Netflix Series? Do you feel anxiety and must do something about it? Depression is overwhelming? Your goal is to get X times a week to the gym? You have a workout routine you want to follow?

Whatever “sets off your alarm”, use this trigger to get a workout done. Note, it can be something that usually triggers the urge to do something bad as smoking but use this trigger to get to the gym.

The Routine

Go to the gym! Do your workout routine, track your results and…

The Reward

… you will get a good feeling! Positive energy overflow people! To top the reward, have a cup of nice coffee somewhere or serve yourself a nice treat.

And it’s important that you track your workout. When you see progress it’s highly motivating and will help keep you going. If you don’t track or measure, you will not see the change. Progress motivates you further and it will be easier to make other beneficial habits! You are making your lifestyle healthier and more productive one step at a time.

The Belief

As mentioned earlier, believe in what you are doing and believe that you can find a few hours a week for training. We all have 24 hours in one day, but we must choose what to do with that time. Get rid of the belief that you would not have time, or you cannot train because of ‘insert any excuse’.


Keep grinding and making progress. At some point, you’ll realize that working out has become a habit. You’ll start craving to get to the gym and realize that working out is now a part of your life. Now you crave for something healthy that hopefully changes other parts of your life as well.

Remember also to stop and reflect every now and then and think about what positive changes working out has made in your life. Hopefully, you will achieve a more happy, productive and healthy life.

Have you heard about Intermittent Fasting? Also a great Keystone Habit. To find out more about IF, please read:

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