For years, I was the person who kept paying a membership to a gym I never went to.
I'd sign up for early morning boot camps and press snooze when the alarm sounded.
I'd lug work-out gear around in my backpack all day, only to skip my run on the way home.
Despite having the capacity to exercise regularly, and even knowing the minimum amount you need, I didn't make it a priority.
Why was it so difficult for me to start — let alone stick — to an exercise routine?
Now almost a year into exercising consistently, I can pinpoint the fault. My previous motivation for exercising — to change my appearance — was counterproductive.
With my weight as the focus, I'd created a flawed habit loop — a typical cue would be to feel bad about my body, which would prompt the desire to build an exercise routine and lose weight, with the reward being to see instant improvement.
Partnering a reward to an unrealistic expectation made my exercise goals vulnerable to sabotage.
Turns out there are many, many opportunities to brand yourself a failure if you don't see instant results, or don't meet the narrow #fitspo ideal straight away… or ever.
How I reframed my thinking about exercise
The remedy was simple. Eventually, I stopped focusing on what exercise could do for the appearance of my body and focused on what it could do for my mind.
I threw away any measurement or weight goals, and instead started seeing the boost to my mood, productivity and energy level as my reward.
As with most aspects of our wellbeing, I found there is no miracle hack, special equipment, or trend that helps you make an exercise habit.
For me, it has been taking low-key steps to make a mental shift about why we exercise.
1. Develop a motivation that isn't attached to vanity
A surprising source of exercise wisdom for me has been an existential advice column from the US called Ask Polly.
Rather than digesting articles about how to turn into a fat-burning machine, reading Heather Havrilesky's column each week helped me see the importance of exercising for your brain.
She prescribes exercise for almost any form of existential malaise, so I recently got in touch to ask why.
"It gets boring to talk about exercise all the time, but my personal experience is that I am very ambitious when I exercise regularly," she told me.
"I'm very optimistic. I reach out to a lot of different friends. I make and keep plans. The quality of my writing is better."
The motivation for exercise does not need to be tied to vanity, but rather about being at your best.
"The only motive that has worked for me to exercise has been noticing how I love being alive when I do, and how I can barely stand it when I don't," Ms Havrilesky says.
2. Focus on your energy levels
We all have varying energy levels, just as we have varying body shapes, which makes exercise an important energy-booster for many of us.
As Ms Havrilesky writes in response to a recent letter, "You sound like someone with very little energy and a tiny bit of anxiety baked into your being. You're the kind of person who needs to commit to exercising every day, or close to every day. You have to make the time, even if it's just a half-hour".
"You need to understand that when you don't bother, you're basically choosing to feel like shit."
While daily exercise might not be possible for everyone — be it for health or other restrictions — nor is it a cure-all for everyone, I now see it as something to experiment with.
For me, it improves creativity and productivity. I've noticed regular exercise helps me to wake up with more ease, meaning I can do my best work with a clear head each morning.
3. Accept the inevitable off day
Shifting the reason you exercise from being about appearance to being about mood doesn't mean you'll be perfect at exercising every day.
I still slack off week-by-week, but when I look at an overall month, I am exercising on average four to five times per week.
Tracking has been helpful. The times I've skipped a few days I have seen a dip in my energy, focus or mood.
With most things I tend to fall into an all-or-nothing mentality, so tracking is key to act both as a reward system for my brain, as well as to see how skipping exercise impacts my mood.
It also prompts me to try to do something on my "off days". If I miss my usual 30-minute HIIT class, I'll go for a walk and try to bring up my step count for the day.
4. Replace self-control with self-care
Another roadblock to regular exercise for me was the rules and measures I had around the habit I was still to develop: I must exercise first thing in the morning, at this particular intensity, for this duration, or it doesn't count.
These rules meant I had to employ extreme self-control to stick to the habit.
If I made one misstep, this could sabotage my efforts to be more consistent with exercising.
What has made me stick to the habit of exercise is applying some flexibility, which in turn creates more opportunities for reward than for failure.
It's now one checkbox: move every day.
No hacks, no scheduling, no rules, no measurements that only left me feeling bad about myself when I'd put off exercise or succumbed to temptation.
This simple shift has made the habit less about self-control and more a single act of self-care.
The goal can be met with much less effort, avoiding the question of willpower altogether.
5. Let confidence grow with experience
I started with a small goal: to move and feel good.
As I gained more confidence in the gym environment, I was inspired to try new things.
While my go-to exercise is high-intensity interval training because it's quick and impactful, I have also started seeing a personal trainer to learn more about bell bar training and the movements that can help us the most in our daily lives.
Exercise gives me strength, but I don't have an impressive body transformation to show, or a before-and-after for Instagram — my curves and the rolls of my belly remain.
If only I could put the momentum I feel, the sense of accomplishment, the clarity and resilience on a highlight reel.