Regular exercise makes us happier and healthier — but sometimes, even that’s not enough to get you to lace up your sneakers. Everything from boredom to busyness to the lure of the couch can get in the way of maintaining a workout routine, despite our best intentions.
In fact only one in three people get the recommended 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, according to government figures. But research shows that people who exercise consistently see better long-term results. That means to be successful, it’s important to have a few tricks to get moving even when you don’t feel like it.
1. Tap the Power of Visualization
Believe it or not, there is real science behind the benefits of imagining yourself doing something, aka visualization. Research shows that visualizing yourself engaging in health-related behaviors can up your motivation. Kathryn Schwab, a psychologist in Springboro, Ohio, suggests establishing a long-term exercise goal. Now imagine a future point in which you’ve already achieved that goal. “Hold a mental picture of it as if it were occurring right at that moment,” Schwab explains. “Imagine the scene in as much detail as possible.” Continue to visualize this moment every day, just before bed or after waking up. Bonus points if you combine visualization with meditation or affirmations. For example, repeating “I am determined and strong.” That feeling might be the little jolt you need to get active.
2. Right Size Your Goal
When motivated, we tend to bite off more than we can chew. But when that initial motivation fades, the behavior change quickly fades as well, says Wayne Scott Andersen, MD, a physician and author of “Dr. A’s Habits of Health.” “Since the key to habit formation is doing the action or routine consistently over time until it is automatic, the key to installing habits is to make the action simple enough that you have the ability to do it every day,” he says. He recommends starting with the simplest, easiest goal imaginable. “Make the threshold for success so low that it takes little effort to be successful.”
How to find a fitness goal that’s right for you? Stephanie Harrison, a former professor of positive psychology and founder of thenewhappy.com, which translates psychological research into actionable ways people can feel better, suggests setting a goal that’s just a bit more ambitious than your current daily activity. “For example, if you're currently walking 5,000 steps a day, up the goal by 1,000 steps,” she says. “You want it to be more ambitious than your current default but not too ambitious, which can backfire and end up de-motivating you.” If you're using a smartwatch or fitness tracker, track your progress. Once you've successfully achieved that goal for about two weeks, increase it again by 1,000 steps.
3. Focus on Well-Being, Not Weight
“If you check your weight every day, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment,” says Sam Nabil, a licensed counselor and founder of Naya Clinics. Any plateau or slight gain can drain your motivation, making it that much harder to get moving.
Nabil recommends stepping on the scale only once a week. At the same time, focus on other metrics to track your fitness. That could include your heart rate. Most healthy adults have a resting heart rate between 60 and 100 beats per minute. You might find your resting heart rate drops the fitter you get. Tracking your fitness activity, whether that’s once a week or once a month, is also a great way to stay motivated by showing the progress you’re making. Maybe 10 minutes on the exercise bike used to leave you winded and now you can handle 20 minutes with no trouble.
Science backs this up: People who experienced intrinsic motivation — working out because of the satisfaction it produces — were more likely to successfully complete an eight-week workout program, according to findings from a 2013 study.
4. Think Mini Movements
If a dedicated exercise session is filling you with dread, it’s OK to aim smaller. Think back to the activities you enjoyed as a kid, like dancing, shopping, or kicking a soccer ball around your backyard. The adult equivalents — say, hauling laundry loads up and down stairs, washing the car in the driveway, or reorganizing the garage — all count, says Andersen. On days when formal fitness feels out of the question, try sneaking in more accidental exercise. You can make dozens of choices all day long to get in more activity without making major changes to your lifestyle. One study found that replacing 30 minutes of sitting with light activity can reduce your risk of early death by 17%.
5. Make Memories
It sounds like a cliché, but people who believe in their abilities really do perform better. One study found that people who have positive fitness memories — whether it’s the 5K you ran a few years ago or your high school tennis championship — reported exercising more.
To help turn yesterday’s endorphins into today’s motivation, try making it easier to jog positive memories, says Schwab. Maybe you hang that picture you and your pals took after finishing an all-day bike trip by the front door. Or maybe you keep the race shirt you got from your first 5K on your dresser, so it’s ready to wear. Or maybe you make it a habit to jot a quick post-workout note to yourself (“That yoga video wiped my stress away!”) and stick it in a place where you’ll be sure to see it tomorrow.
Finding little tricks to increase your motivation can sometimes mean the difference between working out and not. But even with all the tricks at your fingertips, there will be days you don’t — and that’s OK, says Andersen. “Any journey, especially when it’s health-related, is a series of ups and downs, not a straight line.” When you work out, celebrate it as a win. And when you don’t, “extend some self-compassion,” he says. And remember that tomorrow is a new day.