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How to build self-discipline to exercise and achieve fitness goals, according to a psychologist

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It’s common to think about self-discipline in simple terms: either someone has it or they don’t. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. A psychologist shares six tips for lasting self-discipline to help you achieve your long-term goals.

Self-discipline is the capacity to delay gratification in pursuit of a longer-term goal. Whether that’s forfeiting a new pair of shoes to save for a deposit or forgoing that lie-in to train for a marathon, self-discipline is about acting now to give ‘future you’ a fighting chance.

Though some personality types may find that self-discipline comes more naturally for them, it is a skill that can be developed and strengthened. However, there are a few factors that, I think, are important to boost your chances. 

A HEALTHY BRAIN

No one ever mentions a healthy brain in order to achieve your goals, right? What has your brain health got to do with exercise? Well, everything actually. Controlling impulses, resisting immediate gratification, holding a long-term goal in mind, and making the effort to repeat the behaviours that will get you there, require what psychologists call ‘good executive function’. 

Your executive functions are all the parts of your thinking that help you to be less reactive and more thoughtful and deliberate. They require sophisticated acts of self-monitoring and decision-making, and they happen mostly in the front part of your brain – the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC). The PFC is the last part of the brain to develop, not being fully constructed until your mid-20s (which is why teenagers are known for their impulsive behaviour). 

To carry out these higher level functions, your brain needs to be well-nourished, well-rested and not overwhelmed. That’s why we find it harder to stick to any plan when we’re overtired, hungry or stressed.

To have a healthy brain, you can start be exercising and eating the right foods to support your mental health

A woman happily looking at a plate of food to eat.
"Supporting your brain includes eating the right foods to support your mental health."

A COMPELLING REASON

When people find themselves stalling on their goals, it’s not because they’re not good at seeing things through, but because they actually didn’t care that much about the goal in the first place. Let’s take running, for example. Maybe you signed up to run a marathon because you thought it would be impressive, but then you realised that you didn’t care enough about impressing your mates to justify getting up at the crack of dawn for those gruelling winter runs. However, hearing that a family member (or even a celebrity) has had a health scare can be a compelling reason to focus more on your own health. Taking a little time to find a good reason for doing something, or to identify the most compelling features of a goal, will help to keep you on track. 

A GOOD PLAN

Lack of discipline gets the blame when, in truth, it was the plan (or lack of one) that was at fault. We can frequently be in such a rush to get started that we don’t do the groundwork, but that’s like trying to build a house without consulting an architect; it’s likely to result in a botch job that takes you four times as long to achieve, if you manage to achieve it at all. So seek advice, draft a realistic plan (including how to reduce distractions) and start small so that you accrue results over time. Which brings me to…

MOMENTUM

Once you have a compelling reason and a realistic plan, it’s time to get going. The power of laying the groundwork and starting small is that you begin to prove to yourself that you are capable of doing it. Instead of thinking ‘I never see things through’ you begin to believe, as Adrienne Herbert says, ‘I can do hard things’. This in turn builds confidence, creating a virtuous cycle of momentum building confidence, driving further momentum.

A woman sat on the sofa looking out of her window.
Fitness discipline: self-compassion is important

SELF-COMPASSION

This is another essential component that often gets left out of the conversation. We tend to think that an unrelenting, #NoDaysOff mentality is the hallmark of self-discipline. However, this attitude tends to be both brittle and brutal. It leads to a mindset in which any deviation from the plan is perceived as a sign of ‘failure’ or ‘weakness’, setting you up for negative self-talk and skewering motivation.

Self-compassion means being able to understand that we are human, and inevitably humans make mistakes or fall short. This allows you to extend the same kindness to yourself as you would someone else in your situation, and to take stock and learn lessons from what happened. Somewhat counterintuitively, self-compassion is associated with greater resilience – possibly because you waste less time and energy beating yourself up and instead, just get back to it.

SELF-PARENTING

Developing self-discipline is, essentially, about becoming your own parent. And, in the same way that a good parent doesn’t let their kid stay up all night eating marshmallows when they have an exam in the morning, you have to get on board with the idea that it can’t all be fun all of the time. 

Remember that effort is the tax we pay for change and working towards long-term goals requires saying no to instant gratification. This means that, while it should feel valuable, sometimes it will be boring AF. And you have to be okay with that or you’ll fall at the hurdle. Try not to attach too much value to the idea of enjoying the process or journey all of the time.

Self-discipline is the key to unlocking so many of the things that you want to achieve but it needs the right conditions. Taking time to prepare: building a plan, removing distractions and being kind to yourself will help you to build strength of mind.

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Kimberley Wilson

Chartered psychologist Kimberley Wilson is our Head Strong columnist, one of our resident experts from the Strong Women Collective and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain. She’s passionate about caring for our mental health through evidence-based nutrition and psychological therapy – and loves discussing how you can train your mindset to become stronger in body and mind.

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