As I watch the fitness influencers on social media lifting weights or running mile after mile, I think, how hard can working out really be? I can do that! The videos often motivate me to don my workout clothes and step up on the treadmill.
But one small hiccup is enough to derail my best intentions. It could be my phone pinging to let me know a new email has arrived, which I should take care of right now instead of running a mile. Or, maybe it's the super athlete on the machine next to me; I think I left something important in the locker room… (like my confidence).
Does working out sometimes feel like an insurmountable chore? Whether finding the time or the motivation, we can all struggle with getting into an exercise routine. I don't have to tell you that daily movement benefits your health; you already know that.
But I can tell you the experts' best advice for how you can get into working out (for good this time!). I rounded up the top recommendations from certified personal trainers, coaches, and human research trials to create a basic plan for breaking out of the sedentary cycle. It's versatile and customizable, so feel free to adapt it to whatever type of movement or exercise makes you happy!
Why Is Working Out Consistently Challenging?
I promised not to tell you to "just do it," and I won't, but there is some truth to this statement that can't be overlooked. The problem with jumping straight into a full-fledged workout routine cold turkey is that it can make you prone to burnout. But, you have to take the first step. If you can convince yourself to do just a few minutes on the days when you don’t feel motivated, you might find that you can keep going. You just have to start.
Omero Rangel, certified strength and conditioning specialist, puts it this way: "Tell yourself, ‘I will start with 10 minutes of working out,’ which can be adjusted to suit your particular motivation level. For example, instead of 10 minutes, you may tell yourself, ‘I will run a quarter of a mile, I'll do five minutes of stretching, I'll walk one lap around the block.’" The options are endless.
Still, if you can commit to a few minutes, chances are, "once you're there, you will want to stay a little bit longer," continues Rangel. And, even if you don't, at least you got in 10 minutes of exercise and took the first step toward an established routine.
Why can a few minutes make such a profound change in our behavior? There are a few reasons. Exercise can release feel-good hormones called endorphins, which boost the production of dopamine. When dopamine gets released, motivation surges and this boost can influence future behavior. You can coax your brain into associating exercise (even just 10 minutes of it!) with a surge of positive feelings, motivating you to seek exercise to reap the mood-boosting reward.
I use this technique during exercise if I’m unmotivated and feel like I just want to get off the treadmill. I tell myself just two more minutes. After I finish those two more minutes, I will do it again. Okay, two more minutes. About 99.9% of the time, I finish my whole workout.
Small but strategic habit changes can also help you stick to your workout plan. Rangel references "habit stacking," intentional shifts that aren't profound but form the beginning of a new mindset. In simple terms, pairing a new habit with an old one increases your likelihood of doing it.
For example, if you have the habit of waking up and brushing your teeth, you could say, “every morning after I brush my teeth, I'll do 10 minutes of yoga.” Once that becomes routine, add 10 minutes of strength training or a 15-minute walk. The aim is to keep the incremental steps short.
I used habit stacking to start working out five times a week by going to the gym after I have a cup of coffee in the morning. The habit is automatic now that I’ve been doing this for months. I don’t even think about it. I just go to the gym after finishing my coffee. James Clear talks about this in his book Atomic Habits.
Jesse Grund, certified personal trainer, notes that short-term goals, like 10 minutes, are imperative for behavior change. He says, "Behavior change strategies have to include setting goals both short term and long term."
We’ve learned that we can become motivated by the feel-good rewards we get when we exercise. Setting goals with positive framing, known as approach goals, help you act in ways that get you closer to your desired outcomes. Research suggests that approach goals help people change their health behaviors because they’re associated with positive emotions.
Combine an approach goal with habit stacking to perform short-term actions that will help you achieve your long-term goal. For example, if you eat dinner every evening, you could take a 10- to 20-minute walk after dinner instead of plopping down on the couch to watch a show. If the weather isn’t great or it’s too dark outside after dinner, walk up and down the stairs for 10 minutes or do a short workout on Youtube. The point is to combine an approach goal (gentle exercise after eating) with a daily habit (eating dinner).
I've highlighted two important features of workout motivation: starting and approach goals. How can you put these into an actionable plan to help you stick with your exercise routine for the long haul?
Five Tips to Make Your Workout Motivation Last
Here are experts' top practical tips for making the above framework work for you.
1. Make it Hard to Find an Excuse
Don't let distractions or hiccups sabotage your best-laid plans. Once you've found a workout or activity you want to try, schedule it into your calendar just like you would a meeting or a dentist appointment. If you leave your workouts to chance, they're apt to get pushed to the back burner. Instead, treat the first month as an adjustment period, aiming for workouts two to three days a week.
Ultimately, you want to work up to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. But your short-term goal can be a range; for example, you will work out three to four days a week. If you don't make it one day, try again another day.
Rangel advises, "Set your gym clothes and shoes out the night before," which can make getting ready for a workout effortless. Eliminating distractions, such as silencing notifications for the duration of your workout, means you won’t have reasons to stop once you’ve started.
2. Try Mini Workouts
No time for a full-length workout? Or does the entire workout seem too daunting? In either case, breaking up your physical activity into smaller chunks can help. Grund agrees, stating that he sees clients immediately wanting to do 30 push-ups in a row when they can barely do five. The solution? Six sets of five push-ups spread throughout the day. Research shows that short walks throughout the day, as opposed to one long walk, can still elicit similar health benefits.
3. Find Something You Enjoy
There are many ways to adopt this tip to fit your personal goals and routine. First, find a workout or activity that makes you happy. Exercise doesn't always equal a gym; it can look like a walk in the woods, yoga in the park with friends, or dancing at home. If you find something you can look forward to, you may be more likely to show up.
Incorporate things you already know you enjoy into your workout. For example, if you crave instant results and like statistics, wear a fitness tracker that can update you on your achievements immediately post-workout. If you like a challenge, you may enjoy a faster-paced class like spinning or bootcamp. Your personality and preferences help determine which workouts you are most likely to stick with.
Finally, listening to music can keep you going; it can increase exercise duration without an increase in perceived effort. A faster beat is often recommended, as some studies show it can motivate you to pick up the pace while exercising.
4. Move Your Workout to the Morning
Not everyone is a morning person, but it might be worth trying a morning workout at least a few times. Working out first thing can help eliminate excuses, like feeling drained at the end of the day. Also, if you stick with an a.m. routine, you might benefit from lower blood pressure.
I'm not a morning person, but I prefer to get my workout done first thing. Then I can come back, shower, and prepare for the day.
5. Have a Plan B
If your kickboxing class is unexpectedly canceled, do you call it a day? Skipping your workout has the potential to derail your motivation and momentum. And, if you've been using habit stacking as suggested by Rangel, you'll likely feel compelled to still do something.
That's where having a Plan B can come in handy. Keeping an online playlist or no-equipment workout in the notes section of your phone is excellent for when you can't go to the gym, exercise outside, or simply don't feel like giving it 100%. A few contingency plans can keep you showing up even when life gets in the way.
If you struggle to exercise consistently, you might need someone to keep you accountable. Sign up for a free consultation with a certified personal trainer today to see how they can motivate you.