How To Motivate Yourself Into an Exercise Routine You'll Actually Stick To
If getting active and staying healthy were easy, everyone would do it...but we don't. We come home after a long day of sitting in a chair to de-stress by sitting in another chair, unable to summon the energy to take a walk or hit the gym. Sure, everyone says to "make time for what's important to you," but oversimplification doesn't make the struggle easier. Let's break down the mental walls keeping you from taking care of yourself.
We've shown you lots of great ways to get and stay active. Whether it's the Lifehacker workout or our daily 20 minute workout generator, you have plenty of options if you're not sure how to get active and get in shape. Combined with the personal trainer in your pocket (in the form of your Android or your iPhone), you have all the tools you need to get healthy. So why haven't you?
Whether it's time management, stress, a busy job, bustling family life, or something else, in this post we're going to help you break down the barriers that may keep you from getting up and active. We sat down with some experts—people who have really motivated others—for their tips on how to do what you already know you should. When we're through, you'll be in the mental position to take advantage of the great fitness resources we've put together.
No Excuses: Tear Down Those Mental Walls
First of all, if you're struggling with a sedentary lifestyle, you're not alone. Millions of us are just like you, and we all know we should get moving, but we stumble and fall back into old habits or never get the traction you need. This is completely normal, don't think anything otherwise. Very few people spring out of bed one day and say "I'm going to change my behavior for the better for the rest of my life," do it, and never look back. In the real world things are different. Here are some things to remember:
- Don't be too hard on yourself. Fitness expert (and Lifehacker contributor) Roger Lawson notes that we're often our own biggest hurdle. "They're simply too hard & expect too much from themselves; they think it has to be much harder than it has to be and when they don't live up to the expectations they've set for themselves, it all begins to fall apart," he explains. This is the cycle many of you know: you start something with good intentions, stumble, get frustrated, and give up. Be nice to yourself—stumbles and failures are going to happen, no one's perfect. Photo by Richard Beatson.
- Don't get caught up in the "all or nothing" mindset. Exercise doesn't have to be complicated. Doing something is better than doing nothing. "Don't let optimal be the enemy of good enough," Roger says. "Sure, you could be doing more or could be doing better, but if in the long run that gets in the way of you doing anything at all then it's not use to you. Do what you can do and do consistently then worry about optimizing later as you gain traction." Remember, getting started is everything.
- Understand how habits work. We've talked about the habit loop and how to break bad habits before, but it's critical here. Richard Talens, co-founder of Fitocracy, your pick for best fitness tracking site, explains it like this: "Most people fail in fitness because they never enter a self-sustaining positive feedback loop. In fact, most people don't even start. In order to be successful at fitness, it needs to be in the same category of the brain as sleeping, eating, and sex." He explained that if exercise worked the way it does in the movies—where a montage plays and after every workout you look better and see results instantly, more people would stick to it. The key is to find a routine replacement that works for you, and that gets results for the energy you put into building it into your habits.
- You're not lazy, you're just starting from zero. One discouraging thing you've probably thought (or heard) before is that you're just lazy and will give up eventually, so why bother. Richard dismissed this idea: "To say that people don't exercise because they are lazy is actually backwards. Often times, people are actually lazy because they're out of shape and don't exercise!" He points out that it's easy for someone in-shape to tell someone who's having a tough time that they're just lazy, but the truth is running a mile for a couch potato is far more difficult and requires more physical and mental will than it does for someone who does five every day. Recognize that, especially when you start down the slippery slope of comparing yourself—and your habits—to others.
- Find your "Secret Sauce". A lot of people will tell you to "just put the fork down," or "just get up and do it," which is easy when that person a: isn't you, and b: is sitting behind a keyboard. Don't listen to them: minimizing and oversimplifying the challenge doesn't help, and while hearing what worked for others can help you figure out things to try, it's almost never going to be exactly what works for you. Look for your own combination of tools, tips, techniques, and advice that will support you and your health and fitness goals. Accept advice, sure, but remember you're in this for you—no one else, and you're the only one who'll know what really works. Photo by Riley Kaminer.
Remember, health and wellness are extremely personal sciences. You'll be assaulted on all sides by articles, scams, self-help books, poorly-reported scientific studies, internet commenters, and more who all claim they know what will work for you—and it usually boils down to what worked for them (which is great!) or what they're willing to sell you (which is not so great.) Having an abundance of options isn't a bad thing, but remember who you're in this for.
Stay Motivated and Engaged to Stick With Your Plan
So what does work? Well, there's more information and advice out there than you could ever possibly use, but the key is to figure out what you'll stick with, so don't be afraid to experiment! Just remember what we said: if you stumble or falter, that means you just need to try something new or start slower—not that there's something wrong with you. Try some of these suggestions:
Set the Bar Low and Start Small. The first time I started working out, I decided to exercise daily for a half hour. Sounds good, right? Well, starting from zero to every day worked well for a while, but when I had to miss a day because I worked late, was sick, or my schedule changed, I felt terrible. Eventually I gave up, and beat myself up over it until I could get motivated to start again. Don't make the same mistake—if you're having trouble with every day, start with twice a week, or once. Whatever it is, start with something you can definitely do effortlessly. This is where suggestions like parking on the far end of the lot and taking the stairs come into play. Try these minimal daily exercises on for size.
"Instead of setting out to exercise 5-6 times a week, aim to do 1-2 times - consistently," Roger says. "Set the bar low so that you can build up initial success and build the self confidence and examples of winning that you'll need once things get harder." Derek Flanzraich, CEO and Founder of Greatist, agrees: "On Sunday nights, schedule your workout times into your calendar for the rest of the week. That removes a ton of excuses— you'll rarely, if ever, really 'just fit a workout in' when you've got a free moment. You're too busy! Schedule it in advance and it'll be top of mind!" The time for ambitiousness is after you have a track record of success. Remember, we're trying to get started, and getting started is hard enough.
Whatever You Do, Make It Fun. Roger couldn't stress this enough, and neither can we. Whatever you do, enjoy it. Choose something rewarding enough to make you feel good about doing it. If you're having a good time, Roger noted, mistakes feel like learning experiences and challenges to be overcome, not throw-up-your-hands-and-give-up moments. This is one reason that he—and we—love sites like Fitocracy, the Mindbloom Life Game (which we've highlighted before), and Superbetter, which also adds a game-like element to wellness. Photo by Richard Coshott.
Derek suggests picking a fun challenge designed for people in your shoes. Stuck on the couch? Try the Couch to 5K running plan! Maybe a mud run or martial arts class would be more up your alley. Whatever it is, make sure it's something you'll have a great time doing, and is low-enough impact that you can get in, keep up, and slowly challenge yourself as it progresses.
Join Communities that Build Positive Habits. Speaking of Fitocracy, Richard explained that services like Fitocracy do so well because they offer consistent, positive rewards for sticking to your guns. Even if you don't see results in the mirror right away—and you won't—a site like Fitocracy rewards you with levels, badges, and other treats that keep you engaged and motivated to do better. That's all great, but Richard explained it's really just a carrot to get you to the real prize: the community. "Wanna know our dirty little secret? I haven't really told this to any journalists explicitly, but points don't help all that much in the long run. They're merely a gateway drug that gets you involved into the community." Don't get caught up in counting calories and tracking steps walked that you miss out on how powerful a community, a workout buddy, or family and friends, rooting for us can be. It can make all the difference.
Use Technology Wisely: To Recount Your Victories. Technology can be a huge benefit to help you see your progress in a way that looking in the mirror won't show you. Our own Adam Pash got in shape with the help of the right gear, and Roger suggests keeping a calendar as a visual track of your victories. Each time you stick to your plan, whether it's diet, exercise, or both, mark it on the calendar. Sound familiar yet? That's right, it's Seinfeld's Productivity Secret, or "Don't Break the Chain." The goal is to keep that track record, whether it's on a calendar, in an app, or on a website, going unbroken as long as possible. Just remember, quantifying your efforts is just a method to get feedback and track your progress. Your tech should be a means to building better habits, not the habit in itself. Photo by Yusuke Kawasaki.
You'll notice we haven't given you a workout routine or exercise plan to follow here. That's because we've done that before several times. You can take those workouts and start today, but before you do, make sure you're in a place mentally where you're set up for success. In a few months, you don't want to still feel miserable every time you begin a workout, or know you have to work out today—it should be second nature, just something you do, like taking a shower or doing the laundry.
Derek reminded us that the turning point for him—and likely for many of us—is when we realize that we're in total control of our choices—not someone else who with a fad diet or book to sell—and that can be incredibly empowering. Once you make that realization, Roger notes that you should always remember where you are now when it comes to health and fitness. Whether it's diet or exercise, being honest with your current situation will keep you from being too ambitious and setting yourself up for failure, or from giving up entirely. "Begin where you are, not where you want to be. Becoming overwhelmed initially is the fastest way to halt all progress. As you get better, do better, and not a moment sooner." We couldn't agree more.
Richard Talens is the Co-Founder and Chief Growth Officer at Fitocracy, a fitness tracking site and social network that's makes tracking your exercise a real-world game that's fun to play. You can find him on Twitter at @dicktalens.
All three volunteered their expertise for this post, and we thank them.
Title photo made using Leremy (Shutterstock).