A Women’s Health & Fitness Habits Toolkit: Action Plans for an Imperfect Process

Are you ready to take action on your health & fitness goals (and fail at it sometimes)?

That may seem like a strange question to ask someone who’s ready to jump in and do the work to improve their health and wellbeing, but I think you have to ask yourself this important question at the beginning of the process. Most women know a ton about health and fitness. We know which foods are healthy, which aren’t and what types of exercise are best for weight loss. We’ve read the latest, greatest diet book, and we’ve tried many of them for a few weeks (perhaps a few months) only to fall off them and feel guilty or ashamed for failing to reach our goals. Maybe you’ve jumped on the New Year/New Me bandwagon countless times, tried to make it work, but somehow lost motivation or willpower before reaching your goals.

I was on the New Year’s diet resolution rollercoaster for decades until I lost more than 60 pounds three years ago. For the first time (in my 50s), I’ve kept the weight off and stuck to my healthy habits. Read my weight-loss story. I know that if losing weight and making healthy choices were simply a matter of knowing what to do, many of us would have done things differently long ago. But the truth is that how you do something—the first steps you take—can influence your success. Also, your stick-to-it-ness is critical.

HodgeonRepeat blog - woman running up stairs

Are you ready and willing to be uncomfortable, put in the work and get back on track when you stumble? Are you ready for a change? I hope so because I’ve got an action plan to help you start building healthy habits that support any weight loss or health-related goal.

If You Are Ready, I Have an Action Plan to Support You

I’m not offering a new diet; I don’t have the latest HIIT workout up my sleeve, and I don’t want to sell you powders or pills. I’m a woman who wants to help other women (especially those who have tried it all, perhaps come up a little short and still want to try again). I wish I’d had a community of women to help me during my weight loss journey. I eventually found my “tribe” at a local YMCA where I work out, but initially, I was on my own trying for the millionth time to lose weight and help improve my health.

Perhaps you’ve committed to some New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, get fit or reduce stress. Maybe you have a new diet book, workout plan or lifestyle coach to help you. It doesn’t matter where you start; I hope you’ll add my approach to building healthy habits to your goals. I know you want to achieve your goals—or you wouldn’t have found my website. I also know that if you find your New Year’s resolution plans heading south, you may panic that you don’t know where to go. I hope you’ll remember the health & fitness habits toolkit I’m about to share with you and let it inspire you to keep going.

HodgeonRepeat blog - lamp posts sign reading old habits and new habits

The truth is that the only thing that finally helped me lose the weight for good was a fundamental shift in how I approached building new habits in my life. My healthy eating and exercise habits became part of the fabric of my life, and I learned how to keep taking action so that I could reinforce those healthy habits. Through the process, I remembered that:

  • Habits are formed through repetition and through consistent practice that involves striving for a reward.
  • I could stumble and eat something off my food plan, skip some workouts and still get back on track (all wasn’t lost).
  • The healthy habits I pursue do more than help me lose weight; they help me reduce stress; they give me a sense of empowerment and improve my health and wellbeing (for me, that means easing perimenopausal symptoms like hot flashes and heart palpitations).

Most importantly, I learned that I could take all those decades of “failed” attempts and use them to build success if I stuck to my goals instead of throwing in the towel. I discovered that I could learn new habits, committing and recommitting to them when I floundered or took a misstep. I learned how to give myself a second, third, twentieth and hundredth chance to succeed! Let me show you how a focus on building healthy habits can help you achieve your goals.

Environmental Cues Shape Habits:

We lead regimented lives where our scheduled activities—work, school, exercise, leisure, eating—are planned out (or carved out) of tightly-knit periods and specific environments. Our environment, where we are at a particular time during the day, plays a huge role in our behavior. Nearly half of human behaviors (eating, sleeping, working, daily errands/activities) occur habitually in the same location each day. They are triggered or cued by our environment.

For example, we may wake up early in the morning and have our first cup of coffee at a particular time and location that rarely changes. For me, it’s sandwiched between my commute to work and my first tasks at my office desk. I don’t reach for coffee at home or on the way to work in the car (as some people do). I wait until my environment (daily commute to work, and my office) cues me to drink my first cup of coffee.

These combinations of activities that happen without our conscious thinking, and are completed on autopilot, make up our habits. There’s been a ton of good research on habits. If you’re interested in reading more about it, check out these resources from Charles Duhigg.

The Habit Loop: Understanding How Habits Work Is Key

To understand your habits, you need to look at the three components of what’s called the “habit loop.” As Duhigg explains, the loop consists of a cue (something that triggers an automatic behavior), a routine (which is the activity/behavior) and a reward (something you like that makes you want to engage in the activity again and again).

HodgeonRepeat blog - habit loop parts - cue routine and reward

Environmental cues (the trigger for the behavior) can be location, time of day, an emotional state of mind, other people, or behavior patterns that trigger a routine. Routines are the actual automatic behaviors we do (sit on the couch and snack while we watch television after work, have cocktails with our girlfriends on Friday night or take a swim class at the local YMCA on the weekend). The reward is the good feeling or outcome that we get from the routine (relaxation after a hard day at work, laughs and socializing with our friends or building mastery and skills). The habit is formed because we want this reward, so we are willing to take the same actions repeatedly to get it.

If we look at my coffee habit, you might think that my office desk is the cue, but it’s my morning commute, especially the part where I walk past several coffee trucks outside my office. I want the coffee to enjoy at my desk, but it’s walking past a series of coffee trucks that cues me to buy the coffee. Don’t get me started on food cues (another fascinating topic for a blog article).

Once I get to my office, take off my coat, put down my bag and sit at my desk, I start with the routine part of the habit: I drink my coffee while reading my first-morning emails. The reward is the smell of the coffee and the warm comfort it brings while I enjoy the quiet of the office. The coffee is signaling to me that this time alone will help me ease into my day’s work. As a full-time business writer, I belong to a vast tribe of writers who can’t seem to get words out without a good cup of Joe. 😊

When looking to change a habit, it’s helpful for you to think about what’s cueing or triggering the behavior and what reward you’re seeking. Identifying the environment/location and timing of a behavior and understanding what reward it brings will help you know what purpose the habit serves. When you try to start a new habit, you’ll be most successful if you focus on changing your behavior or routine while leaving your cues and rewards the same.

We want to create new habits (routines) that serve our health goals. For example, if I wanted to give up coffee, I’d need to develop a new morning desk routine. Perhaps instead of sipping coffee at my desk, I’d massage hand cream into my hands while reading my emails, enjoying the sensation of smell and touch. I’d do this to ease into my work day, instead of drinking my coffee. My cue would still be my morning commute to work, although I might change it slightly by walking a different route, so I don’t have to pass the coffee truck.  My reward doesn’t change much, either. I would still have a pleasant sensory experience in a quiet environment. Instead of the warm coffee cup in my hand and the taste of the coffee, I’d smell the fragrance of the hand cream and enjoy massaging my fingers.

HodgonRepeat blog - woman enjoying hand massage

As you can see, I haven’t changed the cue (walk to work) or the reward (enjoyable sensory treat at my desk to ease into the workday), but I have changed my routine (hand massage instead of coffee). Over time, I would develop a new habit.

Your Health Goals Need New Habits (Willpower & Motivation Alone Won’t Work)

Perhaps you’ve relied on willpower and motivation alone in the past to start a new diet, add exercise to your routine or take better care of yourself. It’s tempting to think that short-term motivation will be enough to jumpstart new behaviors, and sometimes it can work quite well, especially if you see results that make you happy and offer the reward of better health. But for many of us, relying on willpower and motivation alone doesn’t get us very far.

On my weight-loss journey, I relied on motivation initially. I was highly motivated to eat a whole-foods diet because I wanted to get rid of heart palpitations that began when I entered perimenopause, and I believed that eating a whole-foods diet would help ease them. I was right; the diet helped eliminate my heart palpitations, which reduced my anxiety and motivated me to stay on the plan. At first. Over time, however, my motivation waned, and I had to rely on two other key ingredients: action and habits.

The Action Principle (Small Actions Build Healthy Habits)

I believe that taking action (even small ones) can have a huge impact on health. I call it the Action Principle, and it’s the foundation of much of the advice I give on HodgeonRepeat. I try not to overthink healthy actions; I just do them. For example, I exercise nearly every day. Some days it’s walking, other days it’s rowing, spin class or strength training. What’s most important is that I move my body nearly every day to show myself that I’m taking action (really taking care) to change my health.

HodgeonRepeat  blog Jill Hodge sitting on rowing machine

For example, rowing works some 85% of my body’s muscles and happens to be an exercise that I enjoy. When I take action to row for 30-45 minutes (I worked up to this amount over time), I get rewarded: I feel mentally well, I take care of my heart and other muscles, and I lose/maintain weight. Are there days when I don’t want to get on the rower? Absolutely! Loving rowing doesn’t mean I love it every day. We often do things we don’t like for the reward they will bring. Who really likes going to work every day? We do it because it serves a purpose, a need and because we are committed to it.

After so many failed attempts, we may not know where to start to take action for our health. You may be asking yourself: How do I get healthy habits on repeat? I’ve created a process for getting you started with some essential tools in a Health & Fitness Habits Toolkit. In my toolkit, I provide a series of action plans that guide you through the process of planning and implementing key healthy habits. These action plans can walk you through the steps of:

  • eating more whole foods,
  • drinking more water,
  • establishing a walking routine,
  • lifting weights, and
  • beginning a meditation practice.

Each action plan is like a roadmap that helps you plan for and establish goals to build new habits. I offer suggestions for the first action steps you should take to create new behaviors and routines into repeatable habits. I’ve included some of these action plans in my Health & Fitness Habits Toolkit. Download it here:

Consistency is Key to Getting Healthy Habits on Repeat

Healthy habits are formed by taking action over and over again. For me, once I’d made exercise part of my day and taken that action consistently (gotten it on repeat), it became a habit. For example, once I created a time cue for my workouts (after work at 5:00 pm) and developed a routine (rowing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and strength training on Tuesday and Thursday), the rewards started to pile up quickly: weight loss, reduced stress, feelings of exhilaration and empowerment, clothing fit better, skin cleared up, more mindfulness…

All those rewards reinforced my actions and helped me form a habit. A habit will last longer than a diet or exercise plan. A habit will provide consistent rewards, having the power to transform your weight, body strength goals, your thinking, and your overall health. A habit will take over when willpower and motivation are gone. But it’s also important to remember that a habit is something that you create through your actions—no one gives it to you. You give it to yourself, and that is highly empowering!!

Don’t Panic When You Encounter the Push-Back

Whenever you change your habits, you encounter obstacles. I call those obstacles the “push-back,” and they can be scheduling, family obligations, poor planning, unrealistic expectations and stress. Whatever makes changing your routines difficult is part of the “push-back.”

HodgeonRepeat blog - red balloon pushing against concrete wall

You’ll see that I’ve included ways to handle push-back in each of my action plans. While I can give you some suggestions, your push-back may be different from mine, so you’ll have to figure out how you’ll handle each one as it comes up. Habits don’t disappear; they get replaced. Some habits are tough to replace, and we relapse into old patterns. But, if we stick with it, in time, we can replace the old routines with new ones (so you can replace snacking on the couch after work with a workout at a gym instead).

Dughill’s research also uncovered the positive impact of working with a group or community to change habits. Once you surround yourself with others working toward similar healthy goals (like working out at a gym or buying fresh produce at a neighborhood farmer’s market), you start to find people who value the same behaviors you are trying to develop. Seeing them engage in healthy habits successfully can be highly motivating. I know that when I see someone (especially someone older than me) get on a rowing machine or lift weights at the gym, it makes my heart feel good. It reinforces my optimistic notion of what exercise will do for me and helps me realize that I can do tough workouts, too; I feel like I’m part of a community that includes people I respect. I built the HodgeonRepeat blog and my Instagram page to develop a community like that.

Forming Healthy Habits Takes Time (and Imperfection)

New habits take time to develop; research shows that it takes 10 weeks for consistent actions to become habits (longer than the 21 days you may have heard in the past). Habits also take planning; you have to understand your cues/triggers, the rewards that you seek and the behavior that you will commit to doing.

Don’t worry if 10 weeks sounds too daunting. My approach is different than most others because I anticipate that you will stumble. I think it’s better to prepare for missteps and off-plan behavior at the beginning. As someone who tried to lose weight over and over again, only to lose the weight and regain it back too many times to count, I know that 10 weeks of perfection is unlikely. That’s why I don’t want that to be your goal. As a woman who probably has tons of other things on her plate, I think it’s more realistic to expect that you will do your best to establish this habit. That you will continue to follow your new plan, through good days and bad ones, over 10 weeks.  

Since replacing unhealthy habits with healthier ones is a long-term goal that requires consistency, you shouldn’t expect to stay on track every day. There will inevitably be times when you veer off your new routine. Don’t panic!! This is expected and not an indication that things aren’t working. Instead, look at it as an indication that you’re human, that you are trying to change behaviors that have been ingrained and have become automatic, and that you are working on building consistency over time. Just get back to your routine as soon as possible, forget the deviation and continue for 10 weeks. At the end of the 10 weeks, you can evaluate what worked, what didn’t and figure out if you will be successful in forming this new habit or need more time (and perhaps a change to your original plan).

The only way you fail with this plan is if you stop trying—if you let a deviation make you feel guilty, or if you shame yourself and tell yourself that you can’t do it. That’s the biggest problem you can run into. If, on the other hand, you keep going through the successful days (and the not-so-successful days), you will come out on the other side with a new healthy habit. You will be empowered to continue, and you will be working out of a place of self-acceptance and respect (the land where all healthy habits live). 😃

Getting Started: the 10-Week Health & Fitness Habits Toolkit

I created a toolkit that will get you started with several key habits. The good news is that even if you’ve started a new diet or exercise routine, you can use my toolkit to reinforce your new healthy habits. Most professional diets and exercise plans rely on the creation of healthy habits to stay on track. Think of my toolkit as a supplement or boost to your current diet and exercise plan. The toolkit includes:

  • a whole-foods eating action plan
  • an exercise action plan
  • a mind/body action plan
  • a 10-week daily tracker

One of the action plans in the toolkit is the Salads on Repeat action plan, which: 1) outlines the health benefits of eating salad, 2) helps you create a S.M.A.R.T. goal to add more salads to your weekly meals, 3) walks you through the action steps needed to add those salads, and 4) provides strategies for dealing with “push-back”—those obstacles and bumps in the road that you may encounter as you try to incorporate a new routine into your daily schedule. Each action plan ends with questions and follow-up ideas and strategies to help you reflect on how you will keep this habit on repeat in your routine.

In the months to follow, I’ll be adding new action plans on my blog that you can access whenever you like. Get started—download your free toolkit today:

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