Seven strategies to increase your motivation to exercise

people exercising on takapuna beach

Do you struggle with motivation to exercise? Is it hard to prioritise exercise over your growing to-do list? Have you ever wondered how some people appear to establish and maintain their exercise regime with complete ease while so many others struggle with motivation? The secret to bolstering your motivation is not how great your goal is, but how you prepare to achieve it.

It’s easy to set a lofty goal and feel motivated for a day or a week. “I want to look toned in my holiday pictures!” At first, it’s exciting to hit the treadmill, feeling inspired by visions of a transformed body. But results take a long time to show, and our motivation will often fail us early, leaving the fitness habit to gradually fade away.

We need to move away from lightweight intentions, such as “I will run three times a week” and look to build our motivation from within ourselves, by reflecting on the factors that determine success. Your personal responses to these motivation factors will result in a plan that will work specifically for you.

What are the motivation secrets to developing an exercise routine that will last?

#1 Motivation comes from deep down.

Wanting to look attractive, or run a marathon is a goal, a final result. Goals are great, but they aren’t particularly motivating day in and day out, and they don’t transparently reflect the changes in your routine that need to happen to get you there. They’re your destination and, while it’s a cliché, it’s the journey that we need to be paying the most attention to.

To get motivated, you first need to re-evaluate your mindset and to dig beneath the goal to find your underlying motives. Take, for example, you’re unhappy with your weight and your goal is to lose 20 pounds. Instead of stopping there and jumping straight into your exercise, take time to understand why losing weight is important to you. It might be because you’ve seen the disabling effects of being overweight on the body as it ages. As you reflect on why you want to lose weight, you might decide “I am choosing to live a long, healthy life, and part of that is maintaining a healthy weight so I can enjoy activities without discomfort”. You have established a good reason for your goal, but it’s still focused on the future.

The final step is to make the reason applicable to your everyday life right now. Adapting your decision to an “I am…” statement makes it instantly applicable to your daily decision making and links it to who you inherently are as a person. In the above example, the statement would be “I am a healthy, active person”. Transforming your goal into the core belief underlying it and attaching it to your identity will make a strong impact on your motivation each day.

To summarise:

  1. What is your goal right now?
  2. Why is that your goal? What are the underlying reasons you want that goal?
  3. Turn your reason into an “I am…” statement (make your future-you your current-you).
Motivated to exercise in the parklands of Campo Del Moro, Madrid, in the morning autumn light.
Craving a contrast to your desk-bound office job? Use that as motivation and head outside for lunch-time walks among beautiful nature, like at the Campo del Moro in Madrid.

#2 Motivation is easier when you want to do what you need to do.

How do you make yourself want something? Wanting is something we can’t easily control, and it highly depends on our environment. But there are some things we almost always want at certain times of the day–coffee, wine, chocolate are famous examples and we’ll often even crave them. So, the challenge is to design your fitness routine as something you will crave!

  • Think about the actual exercise. If your goal is to have good cardiovascular fitness but you hate running, think about what other exercise would still achieve your goal, such as a cardio group fitness class, a dance class or joining a sports team. If your goal is to increase flexibility and you didn’t like your first yoga class, take the time to try another yoga style or studio, or consider something different like adult gymnastics training.
  • Design your routine to be socially refreshing
    • If you fantasise about having thirty minutes to yourself with no human interaction, make sure your routine includes solo workouts, like walking or running, or setting up a room for stretching in your home where the activities of your family can’t bother you.
    • Conversely, if finding time to see your friends is difficult, add group exercise into your routine with your friends. Join a class they already attend or form a walking group. The incentive of seeing your friends will make your exercise routine more appealing (not to mention it will increase your accountability!).
  • Attach (healthy) rewards to your exercise as part of the routine. Psychology shows that attaching rewards directly to habits will make you associate them as one activity and feel positively about the action, leading to you completing the task more frequently. A very simple daily example is toothpaste, which has a nice taste, so you’re instantly tasting minty sweetness (the reward) by brushing your teeth (the necessary habit). Ideas you could try to attach rewards to your routine:
    • If you’re at a fitness complex, take a swim or a sauna after a gym workout
    • Catch up with friends after group workouts
    • Have a physio/sports massage after intense weights classes
    • Taking a walk on the beach after a pilates class
    • Treating yourself to a smoothie bowl or coffee after exercise
    • Scheduling routine pampering into your regime (such as setting hair salon, nail and facial appointments after weekend workouts)
  • Make yourself feel special when you are exercising
    • Pick music that inspires you
    • Wear clothing that you love and makes you feel energised
Add motivation to your routine by planning relaxing baths after workouts
Attach rewards to your exercise routine and make a relaxation bath like Roy Lichtenstein’s Woman in Bath your regular activity after the gym to help you want to go to the gym!

#3 Motivation is easier when your routine is consistent.

  • When our routines are consistent, they become a habit and part of our expectations. When our exercise regime is habitual, the decision to exercise disappears, and we just do it because that’s our habit. For example, say at the end of every workday, you change into your workout clothes at work and head straight to the gym/exercise class/walk or cycle home. When this is your consistent habit, it becomes an autopilot response to finishing the workday. As the end of the day nears, you are already mentally prepared to change into your exercise gear and you’ve removed the decision point risk to your motivation about whether you “feel like it”.
  • Use a calendar reminder to keep your routine consistent. For example, you might schedule a yoga class immediately after work on Mondays and Wednesdays because you don’t have late afternoon meetings those days. I recommend booking those classes into your work calendar as a weekly recurring appointment (including the travel time to studio) and marking them as “Out of Office”. If your routine is consistent, your colleagues will learn your routine and will keep it in mind when setting meetings–reducing the chance of your exercise habit being disrupted.
  • For more inspiration about setting consistent habits that stick, I recommend reading James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. It’s an inspiring read that breaks down the process of building habits that will help you achieve your goals.

#4 Motivation is easier when it’s easy to follow your routine.

To stick, you need to design your routine to be easy to do.

  • Time of day – is it easier to exercise in the morning, before other activities pose a risk to your energy or motivation? Perhaps it’s better for you to exercise in the evening to decompress from the day’s stresses? There’s no “best” time, as long as it fits well into your life.
  • Location – is your gym too far away that you don’t go there? Or is exercising in the lounge not motivating if you can see the couch and the TV? Plan to exercise in an environment that is naturally motivating for you.
  • Willpower – do you exercise with only half the effort that you could? Give up faster or lose technique? Try a group class or a personal trainer to keep you accountable.
  • Comfort – do you have the right gear?
    • Supportive clothing, especially high-waisted leggings, solid sports bras and correct footwear, ensure you can focus on the exercise rather than fussing with your clothing.
    • If you’ve got a DIY workout space at home, make sure you have the correct equipment to do your workouts effectively. These might include:
      • A range of weights
      • A supportive mat for stretch and exercise

#5 Motivation is easier when you can see your progress.

  • Gamification means to turn something into a game and can include things like “streak scores” and “levelling up”. Common gamified apps include TripAdvisor, Candy Crush, Duolingo and Facebook. Gamification is a hugely successful way for businesses to addict their customers to their products, so try gamifying your own fitness routine to get those same effects. Have you ever found yourself addicted to an app? What were the compelling components of the gamification? Try taking your fitness goals and adding a compelling gamification element to them to increase your motivation! For example, you could try keep track of your personal bests. Fitness apps like Fitbit include gamification, such as challenging a friend to a step challenge, so give that a try if you’re competitive!
  • Much like gamification, tracking progress is also extremely motivating. Tracking tools such as MyFitnessPal, Google Fit, Runkeeper, or just a basic star chart stuck to your wall can inspire you to keep up the routine.
  • Rewards can be big motivation boosters. You can incorporate them into your motivation plan by attaching them to progress milestones. Consider planning out motivating rewards for achieving your goals. For example, you could plan a weekend trip away once you have maintained your exercise routine for 60 days.
The ultimate reward for keeping your motivation up - a special trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia
The ultimate reward for keeping your motivation up – a special trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia

#6 Motivation is easier when you attack your excuses before they confront you in the moment.

What are your excuses? Think back over the last couple years and review the excuses you give yourself. Excuses always feel valid to us in the moment as we try to balance the stresses of our life. Some excuses will always be ok (for example, being bedridden with a virus) but others are more an issue of planning (I’m too busy) or willpower (I’m tired). Write down all the excuses you can think of and plan, in advance, how you will prepare and respond to them. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • I’m tired. Plan your sleep and nutrition so you have the right amount of energy before your class. For example, if you eat lunch at midday and then go to a circuit training workout in the evening without eating in between, it won’t be a surprise that you feel tired and ill equipped to work hard. Take a power-snack, like rice crackers and nut butter, to eat about an hour before your workout, and make sure you are hydrated all afternoon.
  • It’s not safe to go out in the dark. Go to classes at night-time and schedule outdoor exercise during lunch breaks, or go outside at night with a workout buddy.
  • *Insert pressing task* is more important right now. Schedule exercise for the morning, before conflicting tasks can arise and don’t check email until the morning workout is complete.
  • I’d rather sleep in than exercise. Schedule your workouts for early evening so it doesn’t conflict with your sleep routine. Also keep in mind a late-night workout (just like an early morning one) can hinder quality sleep.
  • I’ll start next week. Why wait? You’re changing who you are now.
  • I’m too fat/inflexible/scrawny to do running/yoga/weights at the gym, it’s embarrassing. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, assess both yourself and your environment. Unfortunately, the rare class can be clique-y, so make sure you avoid them. But most studios are full of people who are only there to improve themselves, not judge others. It’s easy to feel self-conscious when we feel we’re the “worst” in the room, but most people will be too busy focusing on their workout to think about your level. What is more important is who is working the hardest and with the most intention. Try to release your judgmental attitude against yourself and feel happy you are taking steps to improve your health and confidence.
Cyclist providing motivation by patting her partner on the back whilst racing
Working out with friends can make your routine fun, and they can help you stay motivated by holding you accountable, like these cyclists.

#7 Motivation is easier when you surround yourself with people who share your philosophy.

It’s important to share your philosophy and goals with those around you, and to make sure they are on board. A community of like-minded people will encourage you when your motivation wanes. If your physical community isn’t on your wavelength, join an online fitness forum, follow inspiring Instagram accounts or join a Facebook group in your geographic area to connect with like-minded people.

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Please share with us! Have you tried any of these strategies? What’s your favourite tip or idea when it comes to keeping up your motivation to exercise?

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