Well, it has happened again. I contacted a few coaching clients who insisted they would begin exercising with the start of a new year. How many of them are actually doing it? None.
I recently heard an expert say that only 5% of people keep their new year’s resolutions. And the failed resolution that I hear about most often is “exercise”. Many people say they want to, plan to, and need to exercise – but they don’t ever do it. Statistics show that 50% of gym memberships go unused after the first three months.
I myself tend to be off and on with exercise. I stay with the routine for a few weeks and then something happens to throw me off track – I travel, I get a cold, or contend with some household calamity, or a family crisis takes precedence. Soon my best-laid plans are in shambles. By the time life gets back to normal, I have a backlog of chores and adminstrivia that consume my time and energies. Sometimes it’s weeks before I return to my exercise routine.
But eventually, I do get back on track. I always know I will, because exercise is an essential part of my life. When I don’t exercise, I feel sluggish and flabby and yes – guilty. When I do exercise, I have more stamina, I sleep better, and I feel self-satisfied, despite the occasional sore muscles and aching joints.
As a counselor and coach, I’ve studied the ways in which people motivate themselves. In this article, I’ll tell you how to get motivated and stay motivated to exercise. The information comes from my own experience, my readings, and from talking to everyday people (not athletes or physical trainers) who regularly exercise.
Everyone agrees that exercise is worthwhile. We know the benefits of exercise, but knowledge is worthless unless you take action – and you are more likely to take action when you follow these guidelines for getting started.
Getting Started – The Preparation Phase
First, consult with your physician. Ask about the types of exercises that are safe for you.
Second, examine your options. You don’t have to join a gym or become a jogger, just because that’s what others do. Choose an activity you would enjoy. You might choose more than one type of exercise so that you get a mix of activities. Ideally, that mix should include exercises for:
Flexibility (think about stretching or yoga)
Balance (martial arts or dancing, for example)
Cardiovascular fitness (aerobics classes, tennis, or biking are good candidates)
Strength and toning (weight training and resistance exercise will fill the bill)
Third, purchase the right gear. Select the proper clothing for your activity – that might mean foot-ware, protective knee pads, gloves, a helmet, or an athletic bra or athletic supporter. If you use equipment, it should be in good condition and well-maintained.
Fourth, consider hiring a trainer or enrolling in a class. A physical trainer can help you design an exercise routine based on your physical condition and fitness goals. A trainer’s advice is especially important if you use weights or exercise machines, because he or she can help you start out at a safe level of resistance and show you the proper postures and movements. In this way you avoid injury. If hiring a trainer doesn’t suit you, you might find some excellent videos that will guide you at home. Another possibility is to enroll in a class where an instructor will teach you all the right movements. Gyms and fitness centers offer a variety of classes; many of them are free with your membership.
Fifth, make your exercise goals measurable. How often? How long? How much? This is where many people sabotage themselves, because they don’t set specific goals, or their goals are too ambitious – and therefore intimidating. If you say you’ll exercise “when I can find the time to do it,” then other activities will take priority. If you set your goals too high, you might feel defeated before you’ve even begun. Start out with the smallest activity and frequency that you can realistically manage – and then work up from there.
Sixth, clear the obstacles that might get in the way of your action goals. If having the time to exercise is an issue, consider ways to adjust your schedule. Maybe you could eliminate some less essential activity. Maybe you need to make arrangements for someone to look after the kids while you go for a daily walk. Maybe you need to go to bed earlier. If you want to exercise before going to work, maybe you need to skip to the before-bedtime cocktail that makes you feel groggy the next morning. Be honest about whatever might give you an excuse to say “well, not today,” – and resolve it.
Get On with It – The Action Phase
Having completed the Preparation Phase, you are now ready to get into action. Here, in no specific order, are 14 ways to make sure you keep your commitment.
1. Make exercise personally meaningful – and vividly imagine the result. Most people who want to exercise try to motivate themselves with the notion that it’s somehow good for them. “I’ll be healthier. It will give me more energy.” These vague reasons are not personally meaningful and therefore, not motivating. You need a tangible reason to exercise – something that is uniquely meaningful to you.
Every few months I give myself something specific to strive for – something that will keep me going. Last year, in April, my husband made me a gift of a gorgeous strapless gown to wear to a black-tie event we were attending in November. I wanted to look stunning in that dress. So I hung it in my closet where I could see it every day – and it inspired me to keep exercising. The year before that, I was getting in shape to look good for a high school reunion. The year before that, I wanted to look decent for a week’s vacation at the beach. Yes, I’m vain – but hey, it gets me to the gym!
2. It’s not enough to choose a specific, personally motivating idea. Vividly imagine it, so it becomes even more appealing. I visualized walking into black-tie gathering in that strapless gown and feeling like a movie star at the Academy awards. If you aren’t good at visualizing, imagine feelings and sensations. Imagine what you might hear other people say when they notice your new level of fitness. Imagine telling someone about how you worked off those extra pounds or built up those muscles.
3. Get adequate rest. You won’t feel like working out if you feel tired. So take care of your sleep habits. Sleep in a dark, cool environment. Stop caffeine early in the day. Avoid stressful or strenuous activities before bedtime. Learn to turn off the brain chatter and really relax when you get into bed. Adequate rest contributes significantly to self-discipline.
4. Plan ahead and schedule appointments with yourself. Each week, mark adequate time on your daily calendar for exercise. Make that time a top priority appointment with yourself. The night before, lay out your gear and equipment. Expect to do it.
5. “Trick” yourself by doing just small, initial, chunks of your routine. If it’s time to keep your exercise appointment with yourself, and you still feel reluctant, here is a way to “trick” your motivation into gear. Commit to one small chunk at a time.
Tell yourself you will just put on your workout clothes. Then, tell yourself you will spend just five minutes on the treadmill, or just ten minutes at the gym, or you’ll walk just to the end of the block and back. Keep going. Once you get moving, at some point you figure you might as well finish what you started.
6. Set milestones for evidence of accomplishment. This way, your brain will give you a burst of pleasure when you walk a mile without stopping, for the first time, or when you’ve reduced those first five pounds, or when you’ve worked out ten times in one month.
7. Keep a record of your progress and efforts. Keeping a record or a log of your progress will give you visible, tangible evidence of your efforts. For many people there is something intrinsically motivating about this form of feedback. It’s even more motivating when you post your record or chart where other people can see it. See why in the next paragraph.
8. Make it social. The mirror neurons in our brains make us want to be like the people around us. They make us care about what other people think of us. It’s motivating to get approval and support from others. It’s motivating to get into action with others who are striving for similar goals.
So bring a social element into your exercise routine. Find an exercise partner. Get on a team. Attend a class. Join a meet-up where the emphasis is on physical activity. Talk about your progress on social media. By involving others, it’s easier to take on fitness as a part of your identity.
9. Give yourself pep talks. Self-talk is an essential element of how you motivate yourself and establish self-discipline. What you say to yourself matters. You can talk yourself into exercising today or sitting on the couch. You can give yourself valid reasons why you should exercise or why you should not. There is a part of your brain that wants to exercise and a part that doesn’t. Which part will you let win? Your self-talk is part of your “motivation strategy” as you will see in the next paragraph.
10. Develop your motivation strategy. Think about something you always do, no matter what. What do you tell yourself that makes you do it? What images are in your mind? What reasons do you give for doing it? Compare that experience to something you often want to do, but you don’t do it. What do you tell yourself that prevents you from doing it? What reasons do you give yourself for not doing it? How do you talk yourself out of doing it?