Q&A: How do I stay motivated to exercise regularly?


I know a lot of you have trouble with “staying motivated” and skip working out on a regular basis. Here is how you can stick to it without having to pressure yourself too much…

Most people assume they are not motivated enough, and that’s why they cannot exercise regularly…

However, lacking “motivation” or “needing motivation “is a common misconception when it comes to exercise: You don’t need to find motivation because you already have it!

If you were not motivated then you would not care about exercise at all. It wouldn’t matter to you. Most people want to exercise, and want to do it consistently. The reasons that they don’t follow up with what they would like to do don’t include motivation.

The best way to “stay motivated” is to make exercise a habit, so that exercise happens…automatically!

However, before we get into habits (i.e., a routinely repeated, automated behavior) we first need to understand the elements of a single behavior.

With a few smarter moves...you too can keep going!

According to behavioral theory of successful habits, in order for a behavior to happen, 3 things need to exist simultaneously:

  1. Motivation,
  2. Ability,
  3. Triggers

Let’s explore each one of them:
1. Motivation
You need motivation to do any action. You need it to brush your teeth (e.g., need to have fresher breath), you need it to go out with friends (e.g., think you’ll have a good time), you need it to obey the traffic laws (e.g., avoid getting a ticket).

2. Ability
How easy is something to do? The easier it is, the more likely you are to do it. This is where we could radically improve our exercise habits…

Here are some common reasons that make exercise hard to stick to…

  1. Exercise is not just a single activity like, e.g., brushing our teeth. It’s
    a series of activities including showering, going to the gym, etc. The
    higher the number of extra activities, the more complicated the whole
    thing becomes.
  2. Exercise is often dependent on the schedule and presence of other
    people. Can you do yoga without a yoga instructor? Can you play tennis
    on your own? I guess not.
  3. Common belief is that exercise must last for quite some time (e.g., >30 min) – a belief that is not necessarily true. Actually studies show that exercise in e.g. three 10-min segments is as effective as exercising in one straight segment. Also people who do exercise in segments have better adherence percentages that people who don’t!

3. Triggers

  • You just got out of the shower and saw your toothbrush. Boom! Just
    remembered to also brush your teeth. That was a brushing teeth trigger!
  • Your wife politely rejecting your kiss and telling you to brush your teeth is also a trigger! (what a trigger!)
  • You feeling stiff is a trigger (to exercise).
  • You not fitting in your old jeans is a trigger (to go on a diet).
  • Facebook e-mailing you that someone tagged you in a photo is a trigger (to visit facebook).

In other words triggers are calls to action. And they are super-important when it comes to sticking to exercise!

When it comes to exercise, motivation is already in place. The reason people cannot “stay motivated” is that they lack the ability to exercise, and the triggers to do it.

To “stay motivated” to exercise, you have to set in place a plan B workout and an exercise trigger

(before the “I don’t feel like working out” moment hits).

The plan B workout is a short workout that you can do from anywhere (e.g., you can do it at home) so that you don’t need to add extra steps (e.g., going to the gym and back) and make it more time-consuming and harder on you.

Apart from including exercises that can be done from anywhere (e.g., bodyweight exercises, or just jogging) the plan B workout should be short. 10 min is a usually a good number (which is about 3 exercises, of 3 sets each).

However, you are smarter than that. You don’t just have an easy workout in place (which serves for ability), you have already established triggers.

You had already placed your athletic shoes in a prominent place in the living room. Normally, you shoes are placed on the shoe-rack along with the other shoes, and NOT in your living room. However, you have placed them there in order to remind you of your exercise plan. Now you have to make a choice: You will either wear them and exercise, or you will have to take them back to the shoe-rack.

[I guess this kind of trigger won’t work if you don’t mind with untidiness. If that is the case, then you need to come up with something else!:)]

Here’s how the situation is transformed right now…
1. At first you didn’t feel like e.g., going to the gym and staying there for 1 hour. You felt tired.
2. The shoes in the living room apply pressure to you. You need to make a decision. If this is decision is NOT exercising then you will have to take your shoes back to the shoe-rack. You certainly want to avoid that.
3. But…things are easier now. You don’t need to go anywhere to exercise. You can just work out at home. You already know what exercises you need to do. And it’s only 10 min. Just 3 exercises.

Suddenly the situation does not look as bad. You are actually able to persuade yourself to do those 10 min.

And guess what happens…Once you actually start doing the exercises, your exercise appetite returns! So it’s quite probably that once the 10 min are up, you will want to do more! You can still pay a visit to the gym since you now feel like exercising!

Here is why I did not recommend “pushing yourself” into exercising with your plan A (i.e., your regular) workout:

  1. Pushing yourself usually does not work – you will stay at home watching TV rather than exercise.
  2. Resorting to “pushing” often, may lead you to resenting exercise – Resenting exercise is definitely not going to have good effects on your long-term exercise success…

Here is why it’s important to work out, and why it’s ok if you just do 10 min:

  1. Working out will help you keep your work out momentum – which is super-important when it comes to building habits. E.g., have you noticed that once you come back from lazy vacation, it is hard to go back on track again? It’s the exercise momentum being lost that makes it hard.
  2. 10 min are enough to keep you workout momentum and they don’t make you resent exercise (as e.g., pushing yourself to do would have). It’s more important to keep exercising in the long-run, e.g., for the next 10-20-30-40-50 years, than to exercise for 30 or 40 min more today.

If you want to “stay motivated”…then come up with your plan B workout, and with one exercise trigger. They will come in handy next time you don’t feel like working out!

P.S. Don’t wait for you to feel like NOT working out to establish a plan B workout and a trigger. It be too late for that. Do it right now. It’s for your health, damn it!

Have a fitness question you want me to answer? Contact me here.

Photo credit: shirokazan

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