- Dr. Eric Carlsen
9 Tricks to Help You Start Working Out and Actually Stick to It
Whether you’re a pro athlete or just starting to exercise regularly, there are days when we all need a little bit of extra motivation to suit up. Here are a few tips for when you’re tired, it’s cold and rainy, or you had the most frustrating day at work.
You know you should exercise. But how do you keep up your dedication to the gym or a training routine when your schedule is overloaded with a million other things, from work to household responsibilities to travel and other social engagements? Or how do you push yourself to start working out if it’s been years (or basically forever) since you last had a good self-imposed sweat?
Understanding the big picture of why physical activity is critical for your physical and mental well-being is a good place to start.
Ever experience that classic “runner’s high”? It’s not just in your head. Exercising releases hormones called endorphins that promote feelings of euphoria and help you focus.
Working out also improves cardiovascular health and sleep quality, both of which improve your energy levels throughout the day and reduce the risk of a variety of other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
Moving your body more is also associated with a reduced risk of depression.
And exercise may help people who already have depression.
Pretty impressive. But the truth is, you may have all this knowledge and still find yourself wanting to hit the snooze button when it comes to those early morning workouts — or your couch if you’re an afternoon exerciser.
That’s why intentional, strategic habit changes, based on your personality, schedule, likes, and dislikes can make all the difference in whether or not you stick to your workout plans or get thrown off track.
We asked sports psychologists and other fitness pros to share their top tips for finding a workout you’ll actually enjoy and sticking with it for the long haul. Here’s what they say:
1. Find a Workout You Enjoy and Look Forward To
Just because all your friends love spinning or CrossFit doesn’t mean you do, too. Finding a workout you genuinely like will make you that much more likely to stick with it over time, says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., an associate professor at West Virginia University’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences in Morgantown.
“Begin by really thinking about the things you enjoy — nature, group settings, playing sports, quiet time, or being challenged. Then look for activities that meet one or more of your criteria,” she says.
Consider your personality, too, suggests Dr. Dieffenbach. Do you like competition? Then working out with a friend who challenges you or taking a group fitness class may be helpful. Do you like immediately seeing the results of your efforts? Then workouts associated with an app that tracks your progress, like Strava for running and cycling, may be very motivating.
2. Pick Workouts That You’re Good At
“We know from motivation research that humans have the desire to be ‘good’ at something,” says Brandonn S. Harris, Ph.D., a professor and the program director of sport and exercise psychology at Georgia Southern University School of Health and Kinesiology in Savannah and Statesboro. “So, I’d encourage people to not only seek out things they find pleasurable and enjoyable but also things that they’re confident doing or would like to become more proficient in.”
That doesn’t mean the activity will necessarily be easy for you. Unless it’s an activity recovery day, every workout should push you in terms of endurance or muscle building. But there’s no need to struggle through a Zumba class because you hate memorizing the combinations.
On the other hand, if you excelled in sports as a kid, joining an adult basketball or soccer league may be a huge confidence booster (as well as deliver all the health and fitness benefits of a workout). Or if there’s a physical skill you’ve always wanted to be able to do, such as self-defense, you may love suiting up for kickboxing or jiu-jitsu.
3. Put It on Your Calendar as You Would Any Other Appointment
Once you have a workout (or even a few) that you want to try, give yourself a slow and steady break-in period. “Don’t start off by trying to make radical changes,” says Dieffenbach. “Schedule a few days a week and put it on your calendar like any other important appointment.” Giving yourself a workout range for the week can also be helpful. “If you set a goal of working out five days and only go four times, that’s often perceived as a failure,” says Dr. Harris. “Instead, give yourself a more realistic range, like three to five days a week.”
4. Break Up Your Workout into Shorter Spurts
Are you skipping your workout because you don’t have time for the full routine? Break up your physical activity into a few shorter 10-minute spurts throughout the day. “Taking shorter walks throughout the day, as opposed to one longer walk that takes 30 minutes to an hour, has been shown to have very similar benefits,” says Harris.
5. Set Mini-Goals
Many people set huge outcome-oriented goals, such as losing 20 pounds, getting six-pack abs, or running a marathon. While these can be motivating, they don’t tell you what you need to do right now, and in the days and weeks to come, to accomplish them. To stay motivated, ensure you don’t get bored, and keep progressing at a steady rate, setting smaller “process goals” can help.
“If an outcome goal is the top step of a staircase, process goals are like the individual steps you’d take to get there,” says Harris.
Try increasing the length of your run by a half mile every week or increasing the duration of your plank by 15 seconds every three days. If you’re unsure how to safely increase the intensity of your exercise and set realistic process goals, consider enlisting the help of a certified personal trainer.
The feeling that you’ve accomplished something each week (in addition to over a longer period of time) can help motivate you to make each and every workout along the way count.
6. Work Out in the Morning and Get It Out of the Way
Some people find it easier to stick to their workout plans if they do it in the morning, getting it out of the way before an excuse comes up to skip it, says Harris. By the end of the day, you’re often really tired, random things have come up, and there’s always something else to do instead of exercise.
More benefits of a.m. exercise: Morning workouts have been shown to lower blood pressure among older adults and people with overweight or obesity.
Plus, people often feel more energized throughout the day after exercising, Harris says. And that means an early-in-the-day workout could help you tackle your responsibilities (like work or chores) with greater ease, he adds.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to exercise. So, if morning workouts feel like torture, try a few different times of the day and see what works best for your body.
Credit: Stephanie Eckelkamp
Medically Reviewed by Justin Laube, MD