Ask LH: How Can I Stay Motivated For The Gym?

Ask LH: How Can I Stay Motivated For The Gym?

Dear Lifehacker, I recently joined up at the gym (again) and had a few regular weeks of working out, until other things seemed to get in the way of going consistently, and now I haven’t gone in three weeks! How can I stay motivated to keep going after the initial thrill is gone?
From Gym Junkie Wannabee

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Dear GJW,

What you’re referring to is a matter of habit forming, which has been the subject of a number of studies — both scientific and less evidence-based claims. Habits are hard to make, but they’re also hard to break, which can be a good thing if you manage to form a good one. To begin with, it’s useful to know a couple of the most common myths about habit forming. For one, there is no 21 day rule. In fact, 21 days is the figure that was originally introduced as the minimum time needed to form a habit. The truth is that it can indeed take much longer to form a habit, depending both on the habit being formed and on your individual quirks. Having a cup of tea every morning may become a habit within a week, but setting up a weekly gym schedule could take a lot longer to become ingrained as habit.

This may be thanks to the fact that the rewards of a gym-going habit may not be as immediately obvious as the rewards of, say, a daily cup of coffee. If you want to get yourself to the point where you’re automatically lacing up your sneakers to go to the gym every evening, you’ll have to develop a habit loop. This involves the cue (ie, getting home from work), the routine (going to the gym) and the reward (which may be something like a sense of accomplishment, or alternately a physical feeling of wellbeing). The trick, according to The Power of Habit author, Charles Duhigg, is to get to a point when your brain begins to expect and even crave the reward enough to perform the routine automatically on cue.

One Psychology Today study also supports the method of incentivising yourself with promises, such as “if I go to the gym, then I can watch a movie”. Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University, has found that making these kind of “if/then” promises can double the rate of success in forming good habits. Unfortunately, as most of us know already, the only thing that can truly make a habit stick is repetition. Keep at it, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, but try not to fall by the wayside either!


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  • Find things you like to do in the gym as well. I like strength training but not so much cardio. So I tend to focus on that in the gym and then walk or ride a bike for cardio. But then its still all about getting some sort of good reward or feeling from the activity.

  • I’d suggest combining the exercise with monitoring. If you’re going to lose weight then also make sure you track your weight regularly. It’s easier to do that since you should have scales in your bathroom – so every time you hop out of the shower you can weigh yourself. I found it really motivating seeing another kilo drop off.

    If you’re doing it to get stronger/faster/fitter then track that. Add a phone app where you can record your workouts and track your weights or times.

    Set short, mid and long term goals as well. Don’t just say “I’m going to the gym”. Say “I’m going to the gym to lose 10kg over the next 6 months and squat 100kg by the end of the year”. Combine that with your monitoring and it gives you a little reward every time you see yourself get that bit closer.

    edit: Oh, and I nearly forgot. It’s always better with company. If you can talk a friend into going that’s best. Failing that you could always use a personal trainer to keep you motivated and push you that bit harder. It’s also extra motivation since it costs you money whether you train or not.

    • +1
      I found repetition is habit forming and habits build discipline (positive or negative).
      Even when I don’t want to, I get up, go to the gym, do my stuff (usually have a minimum I want to achieve), then If I feel more motivated I keep going, if not I leave.
      Very zombie like but I think that’s what discipline is, no thinking, and it gets the job done.

  • I found that for Cardio its best to do it with something else you like to do.
    I often start watching Dota 2 matches/tournaments on my phone through the gym wifi. i can easily sit on a bike for up to 3 hours watching a best of 3 at the pro level. its what i would do at home anyway, I just replaced my chair with a piece of exercise equipment.

  • Like your OP, I’m a lazy arse. So here are my hooks to keep going

    1. get a personal trainer. Yes, this costs but there’s the incentive of not wanting to let someone down who is specifically waiting for you. Plus, they will push you far harder than you’ll ever push yourself (and safely too).
    2. go to group classes. These make working out more fun since they’re interactive. And there’s the social aspect too. Regulars often become good friends.
    3. pick a goal to work towards. By which I mean an event. Mine are a charity fun runs and obstacle courses. These require different training preparations which have to be worked towards progressively. And joining a team for the event helps too.

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