How to get into the habit of exercise — and stay there

Perhaps Nike was on to something when it unveiled the three-word slogan “Just Do It” 25 years ago. But is making exercise a habit really that simple? Taking the first step is vital, but what really keeps one on the steady path to fitness?

It’s personal, say the experts, as do those who know what an allegiance to fitness really is.

“Working out has to have an emotional payoff in order for you to continue,” says personal trainer Rusty Roussel. “Anyone who eats well and exercises on a regular basis will have a physical benefit, but those who attach something meaningful to what they are doing are the ones who are going to be happy and steadfast.”

Mavis Albin, of Livingston, a member of the Celadrin Tigerettes senior women’s basketball team, knows the value of being part of a group when it comes to staying active.

“You have to be accountable,” says Albin, 77, whose Tigerette team has won seven Senior Olympics gold medals, two silver medals and has tallied up 209 wins and only eight losses. The Baton Rouge team is featured in the award-winning PBS documentary “Age of Champions.” (

“It’s never too late to make exercise a habit,” says the Senior Olympian who did not start working out regularly until she was 55, after she had raised three sons and helped run the family business with her husband for 40 years. Two decades later, fitness is still her healthy habit.

She shares the advice she gave her son: “Never say ‘I have to get to the gym.’ Say ‘I have to go to the gym Monday.’ Be specific. Make a date. Then call a friend and say ‘meet you there at eight,’” says Albin.

Malinda Fontenot, of Baton Rouge, is a firm believer in committing to exercise in the first half of the day. And this is from a woman who works in the health-care industry and is at work by 6:30 or 7:30 in the morning.

“Sometimes that means I work out at lunch, even if I only have 20 or 30 minutes. It’s very easy to let the priorities of others become your priority. That’s why it is best to work out in the morning. Once you work out, you feel the benefits for the rest of the day. You drink more water, you eat better,” says Fontenot. “And you don’t carry the guilt all day of not having worked out.”

For Florence Andre, the exercise habit was reinforced by friendship.

The former nonprofits executive walked into an exercise class the first Monday after her retirement, vowing to herself to exercise daily. Andre discovered she knew other people in the class, and multiple introductions began. Out of that a social group formed, starting with coffee and conversation after class.

“We ended up taking a girls’ trip to New York to see a play. We went to another friend’s house in North Carolina. Two of the women in the class are in the symphony, and we go to concerts to support them. We still have our own lives with family and company in town and doctor’s appointments,” says Andre.

Emotional payoffs come in many positive forms, but beware that there are perceived obstacles that can block the path to a good habit.

“Not having enough time, not liking the workout routine and not wanting to go to a gym,” lists personal trainer Sammye Pisani, who sees roadblocks as an opportunity to develop flexibility. “Workouts can be broken into smaller time segments. If someone doesn’t like the treadmill, for instance, there are other options to try. Find your niche. And you don’t have to go to a gym; you can exercise outdoors or at home.”

Last, but not least, there is one more thing to ponder when embarking on the commitment to get and stay fit.

“Habits are formed by answering this question: How badly do I really want it? Not just want it. REALLY want it,” says Roussel. “Your behavior answers that question. If you go years and years without it, you didn’t want it that much.”