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.

Title photo made using Leremy (Shutterstock).

We've shown you lots of great ways to get and stay active. Whether it's the Lifehacker Workout or our daily 20-minute workouts, 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 device 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 behaviour 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 and 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 optimising 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, one of our favourite fitness-tracking sites, 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. Recognise 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 isn't you and isn't sitting behind a keyboard. Don't listen to them: minimising 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. You're the only one who will 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 and internet commenters 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, got 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, even once a week. Start with something you can definitely do effortlessly. This is where suggestions like parking a few streets away 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 lots 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 will 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 realise 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 realisation, 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.

Roger Lawson is a fitness expert and the man behind Rog Law Fitness. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Richard Talens is the co-founder and Chief Growth Officer at Fitocracy, a fitness-tracking site and social network that makes tracking your exercise a real-world game. You can find him on Twitter.

Derek Flanzraich is the founder and CEO of Greatist, an amazing resource for health and fitness news and tips. You can find him on Twitter.

All three volunteered their expertise for this post, and we thank them.

WATCH MORE: Healthy Living News & Ideas

Comments

    As sappy as this sounds, my long-long-long-long term relationship ended a couple of weeks ago, and I can't help but think that this article is exceptionally well-timed. This article is a perfect excuse for me to start getting my comfortably-rotund back-end into gear and get fit again. Thanks, Lifehacker - we don't always agree, but sometimes you get your sh*t right.

      All the best for your fitness May. I was in a similar position to you only 10 months ago, taking control of your fitness is a great way to take charge of your own life and forge your own destiny. I've found it to be very empowering, after having been considered "half of a couple" rather than "an individual in my own right" for so long.
      *props*

        Thanks, man. I'm in the position where my long-term spouse and I decided to go our separate ways, and although it's the most stomach-churning, heart-wrenchingly crushing experience of my life, I'm glad, in a way. It's made me decide that when it comes to my fitness "good enough" isn't good enough anymore - I want to be the ultra-fit version of me that I used to be.

        Sit ups, here I come. >:]

          Squats > Sit-ups

    Brilliant article. I found the hardest thing was to motivate myself. It wasn't until I asked the wife what she missed in me and she said " the man I met" and that sent shock waves through me. At the time I started a new job, had a 9 month old baby and essentially was busier than ever. However you need that motivation as nothing will get you out of bed no matter how hard you tried. I would be known as Mr. Invisible at social functions because I had a bad back and was always too tired to go out - my life was awful and I could feel that I was losing my wife.

    From then on I was motivated BIG TIME! I browsed the web, contacted the first "local" fitness trainer and over 9 months lost 23 kilos. In addition, I found swimming was a great help for my back and now have been "actively fit" for the past 7 years - no back issues whatsoever and just before this I was so close to a surgeon''s knife it was frightening.

    So with my life back I decided to do something about it for others. It is all very well to sit at your computer screens and read an excellent and realistic article, after all we are all not getting any thinner, obesity is a world wide issue so I wanted to make a difference too.

    This is when I created an app called "My Mates Private Friends Network". We built this for the sole purpose of bringing people together in the real world, away from cyber space. We have built a technology app to get you away from technology – an oxymoron if you like! The app is simple yet effective. Essentially it is a social mobile app that alerts you when friends are nearby.

    We don’t expect people to use the My Mates PFN app and all of a sudden start joining friends in Fitness Groups or Iron Man competitions. All we could hope for is that the app gets you more active. The sheer presence of seeing friends nearby, we hope, will get you out of your arm chairs and actively catching up with them. We want the app to make people more social and this in turn makes you more active and hence you start to get fitter as a consequence of becoming more active!

    This is not the forum for self promotion so if you want to know more got to https://www.mymatespfn.com.

    I truly hope we all can make a difference and help people/communities/society kick obesity to the curb.

    Tim.

    TL;DR.

    I went from 135kg down to 95kg by a diet change (paleo) and strength training with a side of short burst high intensity cardio.
    I was lazy but my motivation came from that classic Nike motto 'Just do it'. So just do it.

    Well, if we're doing product plugs... Ok I don't work for these guys, I'm just a big fan, but it's a fun and free way to kick your fitness off - whatever form of fitness you might be into. Check out Fitocracy. It turns fitness into a game, with quests, leveling up and achievements.

    and of course, the set-and-forget method: Incidental Exercise. I'm a lazy guy, and would never motivate myself to do pure exercise - but sometimes exercise is the most efficient way to accomplish something. Things like:

    -Cycling to work. given traffic and parking around here, I can get from my house to the office faster on a bike than in a car. Weird but true.
    -Stairs. if you're just going up or down a few levels, taking the stairs can be much faster than the lift. I probably save 10+ minutes every day by not waiting for the the damn slow lift to arrive.
    -Muscle work: I do some pushups/situps/dips/etc while I watch TV a couple of times a week. three sets of each, as many as you can do per set, and it can be done purely during ads if you want.

    The Lazy Man System: More than enough to keep you vaguely fit but without devoting time to pure exercise.

    At the end of a day, I'm often very tired and couldnt be stuffed going to the gym.. the motivator for me is that if I do just go home, I'll have to put up with over-crowded trains during the peak hour vs. going to the gym for 1.5 to 2 hours and catching a train I can get a seat on :) Yup.. that's the main motivator for me :)

    EDIT: Oh and also helps that my gym has a 4-lane lap pool, sauna and spa of course.. :) It's also 2 minutes walk from where I work.. so gym choice is a big factor in going regularly. If you have to drive to gym or whatever, then there's more chance you'll not go..

    Last edited 11/10/12 4:32 pm

    You also have to set realistic goals for yourselves, a lot of women in particular get demotivated when they don't start losing weight straight away etc. Instead of focusing on long term goals, we need to focus on the short term goals and rewards from exercise such as better sleep, the adrenaline rush, doing a few more reps than you did last time. The rest comes later.

    It helps to remove any excuse you find yourself using. For me, now that an ACL injury means I can't play ice hockey, running/swimming/riding is terribly boring.
    So to avoid using boredom as an excuse to not exercise I use a rowing machine indoors while watching my favourite tv shows on a computer.

    Fantastic article :)

    I'm 3 1/2 years into a horrible experience with CFS/ME and have only just gotten to a stage where I feel that I can start to integrate more activity into my life. I was very active (former elite) prior to the illness. All that time basically doing nothing, and the horrid weight gain etc... it's a fight to get back into it. Prior to becoming ill, my attitude was "suck it up and do it, cos it's gotta be done!".... but that changed tremendously when my health deteriorated, and I can see now how UNmotivating that is when healthy people say that to unhealthy people!

    I recently turned to 'gadgets' and tech to help me along and honestly it has made a WORLD of difference. I've been using the Jawbone UP in conjunction with both MyFitnessPal and RunKeeper apps on iPhone. These three things (all good for different reasons - thus why I've persevered with using all three) have allowed me to carefully monitor all aspects - sleep, nutrition and activity - and that has made all the difference. When recovering, it's hard to know when to push and when not to, and to be honest you get a bit scared. I'm a lot more confident to get out there now because I have the 'data' to tell me I've had enough rest, and enough nutrition etc etc... (by the way, I also discovered I was coeliac and have thus been on a gluten free diet - which has also contributed to a surge in my health!)

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