Motivation – and exercise motivation in particular – is a funny old thing. The driving force behind any behaviour or action you do, it can push people to get up at unsociable hours to train, lift beyond their assumed limits, and in elite cases dedicate their whole lives to fitness.
But when it’s not working in your favour, it can make the thought of changing into your workout gear send a chill down your spine.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get things moving in the right direction again – whether it’s been a while since you trained or you’ve simply hit a bit of a rut in your progress.
From science-backed strategies to coach-approved techniques, here are 19 different ways to rediscover your exercise motivation.
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19 ways to motivate yourself to exercise
1. Find your ‘why’
“I get my clients to write down five reasons why they want to do exercise on a small postcard and have that pinned up in the kitchen over the chopping board,” says sport and exercise mindset coach and psychologist Matt Cunliffe.
“It doesn’t really matter what your five reasons are – they could be getting shredded or feeling more confident, but if you don’t have those reasons, you’re going to lose motivation quite quickly.”
2. Break it down
“Once you’ve set yourself a long-term goal, break it down into smaller, bite-size’ pieces,” explains personal trainer Ty Paul. “Psychologically, it will help because you’re constantly achieving those small steps, which will cumulatively help you achieve your long-term goal.
“It’s all about dissecting whatever your target is and being specific with your plan. If you’re aiming to improve your general fitness, you can get a really good turnaround in three months. Set yourself three-monthly targets that will get you to your goal, and then break these down further week-by-week.”
3. Get competitive online
Getting some love on a post from the gym or receiving Kudos on Strava is all well and good, but the dopamine hit you get every time your phone pings has less of an impact on your exercise motivation than you might think.
Research from the University of Pennsylvania highlighted how it was in fact the social comparison available through social networks, rather than support received, that drove exercise class participation. In fact, attendance numbers were 90% higher in the group who had access to the rest of their group’s data than those who were going alone. Swerve the likes and dig into your peer’s data fields instead.
4. Set regular reminders to maintain exercise motivation
“Everyone has their reasons for working out, but too few remind themselves of them,” says Cunliffe. “I ask my client to put their ‘whys’ onto their phone and have those pop up at least three times a day to give them a nudge about why they’re exercising and what their reasons are.
“When it gets tough and the dark times come – it’s raining and you’ve got to go for a run or you’ve got to go to the gym and you’re hurting – you have those essential reminders of why it’s important you.”
5. Reward yourself along the way
“It’s impossible to fulfill all the results that you want straight away, but we don’t have a lot of patience with anything – everything has to be instant,” says Paul.
“To counter this, when you achieve a small goal, be sure to reward yourself. It doesn’t always have to be food either – it could be going for a massage or a treatment. Regularly doing this gives you some time to recharge and reflect on how far you’ve come.”
6. Listen up
Addicted to true crime podcasts? Or is there a new album you’re itching to listen to? You should save it only for your training.
Research conducted by the University of Pensylvania found that participants who self-restricted themselves to listening to a tempting audiobook when they worked out visited the gym 29% more frequently than those who tuned in whenever they wanted. Known as temptation bundling, reserving that solid-gold playlist for pumping iron could provide that added incentive to go work out.
7. Have a mantra
“I ask people to have a phrase that they can say to themselves when things get tough,” says Cunliffe. “The one that I used for over a year when I lost six stone was, “It’s days like these that count.”
“Whenever I got out of bed and had sore muscles, or was really tired, I’d say my mantra. That was often enough to push me to get out the house and put in a session.”
8. Distance yourself
Could changing the way you speak to yourself make you more likely to exercise? Research in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests switching from ‘I’ to ‘You’ has the power to do just that.
It found that thinking and speaking to yourself in the second person helped increase people’s focus on positive attitudes toward working out. So next time you’re struggling for exercise motivation, remember that ‘you got this’.
9. Map out your schedule
“When given the option, we love taking the easy route,” says Paul. The best way to counter that? Plan your workouts in your calendar or diary like you would meeting up with friends or work calls.
“If you plan your workouts at the beginning of the week, then you take out the enemy of choice,” he adds. “It stops that waking up on a Monday morning and thinking, What should I do today?.”
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10. Boost your ego
Look down as well as up, according to research published in Nature Communications, which discovered that when looking into what makes exercising contagious, it’s better to fill your feed with those who are a rung below you rather than wall-to-wall washboard abs.
While elite-level athletes might inspire your own self-improvement, the study looked at the data from more than a million runners and found that you’re more likely to push yourself further or faster after seeing a slightly slower peer’s recent activity to subconsciously keep your superiority.
11. Go beyond goals
Goals are great, but can easily change day-to-day or even minute-by-minute – especially if you’re not training towards something tangible like an event. Fortunately, there’s something else you can tap into if you’re struggling to find your why.
“A value is a deep-rooted part of you,” explains Cunliffe. “Try to identity one or two related to exercise, fitness and health. It could be, ‘I want to be healthy in my old age’ or ‘I want to test myself’. These values can be much more motivating than a goal: they’re part of your being and you’re more likely to work towards something you truly believe in.”
12. Write stuff down to keep exercise motivation high
“You see a lot of bodybuilders in the gym carrying a notepad with them, recording every set, and they know exactly where they left off last time. It’s because they have a game plan,” says Paul.
The technique shouldn’t be restricted to weight-room regulars though. “By monitoring everything, you can see exactly what progress you’ve made, even in just a week. The progress you make is completely measurable and factual, and can provide the satisfaction and motivation you need to keep going.”
13. Keep it social
Over the last couple of years, it’s likely that the way you’ve worked out will have had to change and adapt at some point. But if your cobbled-together home gym has started to lose its allure, it might be time to return to the real thing.
“Human beings are exceptionally sociable and being sociable motivates most of us,” explains Cunliffe. “We find that if you have relationships – even if it’s just a small one like a smiling at the person working behind the counter in the gym – you’re more likely to get up and go and do it.”
14. Work out with stronger people
While a training partner is a well-known tactic for staying motivated through accountability, could your perception of their physical ability actually push you to work harder?
Research from Kansas State University supported this idea. By buddying up with peers they saw as fitter, participants increased their workout time and intensity by as much as 200%. And the optimal partner? Someone who is approximately 40% ‘better’.
15. Focus on your strengths
“Exercise motivation is commonly linked to confidence, and if you feel like you’re good at something, you’re more likely to do it,” says Cunliffe.
“If you don’t enjoy the gym, find a sport, game or activity you do like. What you might find is that you’ll need to go to the gym in order to improve at the activity, which in itself is a really good incentive, because then you’ve got something to strive towards.”
16. Make time for reflection
“At the end of every week, reflect on how your week has gone and ask yourself a couple of questions: ‘How did I do this week?’ and ‘how can I be better next week?’,” says Paul.
He explains that it can be easy to fall into the trap of just focusing on your last session and associated negative thoughts if it didn’t go well, but by taking a week-long snapshot you’re able to balance out the negatives with positives.
“You can look back at last week and say, ‘Well, I did a personal best on my chest press, but I didn’t do as well on my deadlift so I need to improve on that. It helps you understand where you stand.”
17. Identify different forms of success
“Visible results from exercise can be quite slow, which actually is really demotivating,” says Cunliffe. “Instead, you have to train yourself to identify successes that are not related to how you look or the individual day in the gym. You might go and lift one day really well and then the next day, go to the gym and lift again but be quite sore and not perform as well.”
Rather than focus on the performance of the lift, he recommends taking confidence from the effort of pushing your limits: “The results are not always as clear cut so we have to be able to take successes from elsewhere, and remind ourselves that those successes are still making progress towards a certain goal.”
18. Prep the night before
“Planning the night before can help eliminate the element of choice,” says Paul. “That could be getting your clothes lined up, packing your gym bag ready for the morning, or putting your banana and your protein shake in your bag so it’s all set to go.
“When you wake up, you can just get up and go and the decision is already made. This technique works if you’re doing a session after work, too. After all, if you fail to prepare, you’re preparing to fail”
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19. Just do it
“One final thing I find nearly always works is simply going to the gym,” says Cunliffe. “Regardless of how you feel, put your gear on, get out of your front door and go. It sounds ridiculously simplistic, but it works almost all the time. When doing this myself, nine times out of ten I complete my workout.”