Is working out more work than pleasure for you? Do you vow to start exercising regularly, only to toss aside your gym shoes after a few sessions? Well, you’re not alone.
Becoming a regular exerciser can seem difficult. In fact, less than 21 percent of Americans meet the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for both aerobic and strength training physical activity. But a 2015 study of more than 300,000 adults published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that simply taking a brisk 20-minute walk each day could lead to a longer life. Knowing that might spur you to start an exercise routine, but research shows that you’ll likely need to see some type of immediate payoff to stick with it.
So how can you make physical activity a part of your life for good? Follow these tips and tricks – backed by the science of motivation – to help you learn to love working out.
1. Revisit your reason for working out.
The “why” that gets you off the couch has a big influence on how likely you are to keep working out, says Michelle Segar, director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center and author of the book, “No Sweat! How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.” If you’re exercising because you should, because your spouse wants you to or because flipping through that glossy magazine made you feel bad about your body, you’re more likely to quit.
If, however, you exercise for the mood boost, the sense of physical well-being or the enjoyment of the activity, chances are much better that you’ll make physical activity part of your life for good, Segar says. “We’re only going to fit stuff into our hectic lives if they’re urgent, meaningful or we really want to do them,” she says.
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2. Learn to love exercise.
But, what if you really want to lose weight, and—let’s be honest, here—that’s your big reason for wanting to start a fitness program? There are several steps you can take to move from “should” to “want to” work out, Segar says. First, pick an activity you really enjoy doing. If you’re not sure what that is yet, experiment with a few different exercises. Still don’t know where to start? Try walking, which absolutely does count as exercise, Segar says. Approach the endeavor with a sense of fun, like a kindergartener. “Play and see what feels good,” she says.
3. Get in touch with your feelings.
While you’re performing your chosen activity, pay attention to how you feel both physically and mentally. Exercise releases the feel-good chemical dopamine, so you may notice a lift in your mood, Segar says. “We’ve been so socialized to think of [exercise] as a health-promoting, weight control behavior that we don’t really notice how it makes us feel,” she says. Segar will sometimes ask others to describe how they feel after a walk, run or other activity, and they often respond, “Gosh, I feel so much better,” she notes. These good feelings motivate the person to continue being active.
4. Take steps to avoid injury.
Starting out slowly can help you reduce your chances of getting hurt, which can derail your exercise program, says Linda Melone, a certified personal trainer in California who specializes in working with women over 50. Melone also recommends signing up for at least a few sessions with a personal trainer who can show you how to do the exercises and check your form. “Every single day I’m in the gym, I see people doing things wrong,” she says.
5. Make exercise your “me time.”
Even if you come to love exercise, it’s easy to let your routine be derailed by daily life—having to cook dinner, fix a leaky faucet or rush to a work meeting. So, once you’ve found a reason for exercise that brings you instant gratification—say, a brisk morning walk that gives you energy or a yoga routine that puts a smile on your face—then you need to give yourself permission to make that activity a top priority in your life, Segar says.
If you have a tendency to put other things first, remind yourself that good self care is “essentially fuel for the life you want to live,” she says.
6. Plan ahead to avoid decision fatigue.
Just like too many squats can wear out your muscles, too many decisions can wear out your mind and sap your desire to exercise. To avoid that scenario, do as much planning as possible ahead of time so that when the time comes, you can move through your workout automatically without having to make choices, Melone says.
Create a workout plan ahead of time and set a reminder on your phone to lay out your gym clothes the night before. Also, get a workout buddy, she says. “If you don’t show up at the gym, they’ll say, ‘Where were you?'” This will help to hold you accountable.
Making exercise a part of your routine can be difficult. But, as a society, we’re undergoing a shift in how we see exercise, from a bad-tasting medicine we have to swallow because it’s good for us to something much more pleasant. “It’s actually the fountain of youth and elixir of life,” Segar says.