How to Start Exercising: A Get-Off-Your-Butt Guide

Richard Branson has dyslexia and did poorly as a student. On his last day at school his headmaster, Robert Drayson, told him he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire.

Drayson turned out to be right. According to Forbes list of billionaires, today Sir Richard Branson is the 12th richest citizen of the United Kingdom with an estimated net worth of almost $5 billion (1) and he is best known as the founder of Virgin Group which comprises over 400 companies.

That is quite an impressive accomplishment from a high school dropout. On one occasion when Branson was heading out with a small group of people to his private island, Necker Island, in order to brainstorm growth options for his Virgin Unite project, one of them asked him something along the lines of: ‘Richard, how can I be more productive?’ Branson leant back, thought for a second and then said: “Work out”.

The Benefits of Exercise

We all know that exercise is good for us. Most of us have a decent understanding of the ways physical activity can help (2):

…. but exercise also has a whole host of great lesser known effects that can benefit our mental health and relationships as well as overall health and well-being:

Reduce stress – According to research into the effect of exercise on neurochemicals involved in the body’s stress response, exercise can help the brain cope better with stress (3). When you work out, you increase the concentrations of ‘norepinephrine’, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress.

Better mood – Exercise releases endorphins, which create feelings of happiness and even euphoria. Studies have shown that physical activity can be effective in alleviating symptoms among clinically depressed people (4). In fact, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants in some cases (5).

Improve self-confidence – Physical fitness can boost self-esteem and improve self-image. Research (5) has shown that regular physical exercise can quickly elevate a person’s perception of her or his self-worth.

Better sleep – A moderate intensity workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia (6). When you move around five to six hours before bedtime, you raise the core temperature of your body. When the body temperature drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals to the body that it is time to sleep (7).

Increased productivity – As it turns out, Richard Branson was right to suggest exercise for increased productivity. Researchers have found that workers, who take time to work out regularly, are more productive and enjoy higher energy levels than their sedentary peers (8, 9).

So how come so few of us actually get up and move?

”I Don’t Have Time”

I’ve been coaching quite a lot of people in the last couple of months and whatever goal they are trying to achieve, I always make sure they are getting a proper amount of exercise.

Whenever a client is rationalising why she/he doesn’t have time to work out, I remind them that exercise should always go down first on their schedule.

Why? If you don’t have your health, all your other achievements won’t matter.

How much fun do you think you will have celebrating your accomplishments if you sacrificed your health in order to get there?

We all have 24 hours in the day. If Richard Branson can make the time to exercise, (at age 64 by the way), of course you can, too. It’s just a matter of priority.

Nevertheless I can hear you say “Working out is hard, boring and painful.” You’re right, if you’re going about it the wrong way.

How to Start Exercising

Do you have a goal in mind for your exercise? Perhaps you want to lose a certain amount of weight? Maybe you want to reduce your stress or become more productive? That’s great — now forget about it.

Yes, you read it correctly! In order to start exercising, instead of obsessing over the benefits you want, your focus should be concentrating on creating the behaviour that will take you there.

Don’t get me wrong, goals are great and an important strategy to build motivation but, in order to actually accomplish them, you need to forget about them and turn your attention to the consistent efforts that will create success. Here’s how:

  1. Start too small. The number one reason people quit their routine is that they ask too much of their bodies and either burn out or even injure themselves. Make a fair estimate of how much you can cope with right now and begin at less than half the intensity and duration. This is crucial for building the necessary momentum at the beginning.
  2. Make small gains each week. Let’s say you decide to jog for 5 minutes every morning. Go ahead and do this for seven days, then add one minute to your routine each week after that. If your body is going to get stronger you need to increase the difficulty of your workout.
  3. Don’t miss workouts. After seeing some success it can be very tempting to go after bigger gains faster. Do not fall into this trap! Remember, you’re not obsessing over the results anymore. You’re too smart for that. This time you’re focusing on your behaviour instead. The only thing that matters, especially if you are going to the gym, is that you keep showing up and accomplishing your workouts. If you do that, the results will inevitably come.

The Get-Off-Your-Butt Checklist

It’s one thing to read this article, perhaps nod in agreement and think to yourself “yeah, I should do that” and then close the browser and forget all about it, but it’s a very different matter to take action on this advice right now, before you do anything else.

That’s why I’ve put together a checklist of things you can start working on to finally get moving at this very moment in time. It shouldn’t take much more than 30 minutes to complete and once you’ve done it, you’re all set to get started:

  1. Schedule your workouts. Get out your schedule and write in when and where your workouts will be taking place. Make it a top priority in your life.
  2. Decide on your type of exercise. There are tons of different activities you can do that fall into the basic four categories of endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. You can check out this list for some inspiration. Research has shown that competence is an important part of motivation so it’s a good idea to start with something you are fairly good at and whatever you do, don’t dwell on this decision. What’s important is that you get moving. You can always change your workouts later.
  3. Make a quick inventory of your workout gear and write down what you’re missing. Investing in new sneakers and some clothes can be a great motivator to get you motivated. Schedule when and where you’ll go shopping.
  4. Get some accountability. Skipping the gym is not as easy when a friend is expecting you to show up. Write down a list of possible workout buddies, accountability partners or find a trainer or coach. You can also go public on your blog or social media by announcing your workout schedule or you could even put up some stake money, anything that will give you the impetus to keep going. Right now, write down what kind of accountability you’ll use and schedule when and how you’ll use it.
  5. Optimise your environment. Check out this article and write down at least one idea in order to help you make exercising as easy as possible plus another idea aimed at making competing behaviours as hard as possible. Schedule when you’ll make these changes.
  6. Create a trigger. Don’t expect your brain to remember your workouts before they have become a habit. Create a trigger or implementation intention to remind yourself.
  7. Start a tracking system. Find a way to measure your progress. I use coach.me for this but a simple google document works fine as well. Every time you successfully complete a workout session, get it down in writing so you can track and celebrate your progress.

… Now you’re set! From this point forward it’s all about showing up and getting your workouts in. Stay consistent, refuse to miss any; keep making small but effective gains and before you know it, you’ll reach the goals you had forgotten all about!


  1. Forbes: Richard Branson
  2. The Benefits of Physical Activity
  3. Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers
  4. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed
  5. Exercise and Depression
  6. Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia
  7. Effects of exercise on sleep
  8. Employee self-rated productivity and objective organizational production levels: effects of worksite health interventions involving reduced work hours and physical exercise
  9. A randomized controlled trial of the effect of aerobic exercise training on feelings of energy and fatigue in sedentary young adults with persistent fatigue
  10. President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition: Facts & Statistics
  11. World Health Organization: Physical Activity
  12. Enters for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity

Thanks to…

James Clear for teaching me about the importance of focusing on your behaviour rather than your results.