Well, it has happened again. I contacted a few coaching clients who insisted they would begin exercising with the start of a new year. How many of them are actually doing it? None.
I recently heard an expert say that only 5% of people keep their new year’s resolutions. And the failed resolution that I hear about most often is “exercise”. Many people say they want to, plan to, and need to exercise – but they don’t ever do it. Statistics show that 50% of gym memberships go unused after the first three months.
I myself tend to be off and on with exercise. I stay with the routine for a few weeks and then something happens to throw me off track – I travel, I get a cold, or contend with some household calamity, or a family crisis takes precedence. Soon my best-laid plans are in shambles. By the time life gets back to normal, I have a backlog of chores and adminstrivia that consume my time and energies. Sometimes it’s weeks before I return to my exercise routine.
But eventually, I do get back on track. I always know I will, because exercise is an essential part of my life. When I don’t exercise, I feel sluggish and flabby and yes – guilty. When I do exercise, I have more stamina, I sleep better, and I feel self-satisfied, despite the occasional sore muscles and aching joints.
As a counselor and coach, I’ve studied the ways in which people motivate themselves. In this article, I’ll tell you how to get motivated and stay motivated to exercise. The information comes from my own experience, my readings, and from talking to everyday people (not athletes or physical trainers) who regularly exercise.
Everyone agrees that exercise is worthwhile. We know the benefits of exercise, but knowledge is worthless unless you take action – and you are more likely to take action when you follow these guidelines for getting started.
Getting Started – The Preparation Phase
First, consult with your physician. Ask about the types of exercises that are safe for you.
Second, examine your options. You don’t have to join a gym or become a jogger, just because that’s what others do. Choose an activity you would enjoy. You might choose more than one type of exercise so that you get a mix of activities. Ideally, that mix should include exercises for:
Flexibility (think about stretching or yoga)
Balance (martial arts or dancing, for example)
Cardiovascular fitness (aerobics classes, tennis, or biking are good candidates)
Strength and toning (weight training and resistance exercise will fill the bill)
Third, purchase the right gear. Select the proper clothing for your activity – that might mean foot-ware, protective knee pads, gloves, a helmet, or an athletic bra or athletic supporter. If you use equipment, it should be in good condition and well-maintained.
Fourth, consider hiring a trainer or enrolling in a class. A physical trainer can help you design an exercise routine based on your physical condition and fitness goals. A trainer’s advice is especially important if you use weights or exercise machines, because he or she can help you start out at a safe level of resistance and show you the proper postures and movements. In this way you avoid injury. If hiring a trainer doesn’t suit you, you might find some excellent videos that will guide you at home. Another possibility is to enroll in a class where an instructor will teach you all the right movements. Gyms and fitness centers offer a variety of classes; many of them are free with your membership.
Fifth, make your exercise goals measurable. How often? How long? How much? This is where many people sabotage themselves, because they don’t set specific goals, or their goals are too ambitious – and therefore intimidating. If you say you’ll exercise “when I can find the time to do it,” then other activities will take priority. If you set your goals too high, you might feel defeated before you’ve even begun. Start out with the smallest activity and frequency that you can realistically manage – and then work up from there.
Sixth, clear the obstacles that might get in the way of your action goals. If having the time to exercise is an issue, consider ways to adjust your schedule. Maybe you could eliminate some less essential activity. Maybe you need to make arrangements for someone to look after the kids while you go for a daily walk. Maybe you need to go to bed earlier. If you want to exercise before going to work, maybe you need to skip to the before-bedtime cocktail that makes you feel groggy the next morning. Be honest about whatever might give you an excuse to say “well, not today,” – and resolve it.
Get On with It – The Action Phase
Having completed the Preparation Phase, you are now ready to get into action. Here, in no specific order, are 14 ways to make sure you keep your commitment.
1. Make exercise personally meaningful – and vividly imagine the result. Most people who want to exercise try to motivate themselves with the notion that it’s somehow good for them. “I’ll be healthier. It will give me more energy.” These vague reasons are not personally meaningful and therefore, not motivating. You need a tangible reason to exercise – something that is uniquely meaningful to you.
Every few months I give myself something specific to strive for – something that will keep me going. Last year, in April, my husband made me a gift of a gorgeous strapless gown to wear to a black-tie event we were attending in November. I wanted to look stunning in that dress. So I hung it in my closet where I could see it every day – and it inspired me to keep exercising. The year before that, I was getting in shape to look good for a high school reunion. The year before that, I wanted to look decent for a week’s vacation at the beach. Yes, I’m vain – but hey, it gets me to the gym!
2. It’s not enough to choose a specific, personally motivating idea. Vividly imagine it, so it becomes even more appealing. I visualized walking into black-tie gathering in that strapless gown and feeling like a movie star at the Academy awards. If you aren’t good at visualizing, imagine feelings and sensations. Imagine what you might hear other people say when they notice your new level of fitness. Imagine telling someone about how you worked off those extra pounds or built up those muscles.
3. Get adequate rest. You won’t feel like working out if you feel tired. So take care of your sleep habits. Sleep in a dark, cool environment. Stop caffeine early in the day. Avoid stressful or strenuous activities before bedtime. Learn to turn off the brain chatter and really relax when you get into bed. Adequate rest contributes significantly to self-discipline.
4. Plan ahead and schedule appointments with yourself. Each week, mark adequate time on your daily calendar for exercise. Make that time a top priority appointment with yourself. The night before, lay out your gear and equipment. Expect to do it.
5. “Trick” yourself by doing just small, initial, chunks of your routine. If it’s time to keep your exercise appointment with yourself, and you still feel reluctant, here is a way to “trick” your motivation into gear. Commit to one small chunk at a time.
Tell yourself you will just put on your workout clothes. Then, tell yourself you will spend just five minutes on the treadmill, or just ten minutes at the gym, or you’ll walk just to the end of the block and back. Keep going. Once you get moving, at some point you figure you might as well finish what you started.
6. Set milestones for evidence of accomplishment. This way, your brain will give you a burst of pleasure when you walk a mile without stopping, for the first time, or when you’ve reduced those first five pounds, or when you’ve worked out ten times in one month.
7. Keep a record of your progress and efforts. Keeping a record or a log of your progress will give you visible, tangible evidence of your efforts. For many people there is something intrinsically motivating about this form of feedback. It’s even more motivating when you post your record or chart where other people can see it. See why in the next paragraph.
8. Make it social. The mirror neurons in our brains make us want to be like the people around us. They make us care about what other people think of us. It’s motivating to get approval and support from others. It’s motivating to get into action with others who are striving for similar goals.
So bring a social element into your exercise routine. Find an exercise partner. Get on a team. Attend a class. Join a meet-up where the emphasis is on physical activity. Talk about your progress on social media. By involving others, it’s easier to take on fitness as a part of your identity.
9. Give yourself pep talks. Self-talk is an essential element of how you motivate yourself and establish self-discipline. What you say to yourself matters. You can talk yourself into exercising today or sitting on the couch. You can give yourself valid reasons why you should exercise or why you should not. There is a part of your brain that wants to exercise and a part that doesn’t. Which part will you let win? Your self-talk is part of your “motivation strategy” as you will see in the next paragraph.
10. Develop your motivation strategy. Think about something you always do, no matter what. What do you tell yourself that makes you do it? What images are in your mind? What reasons do you give for doing it? Compare that experience to something you often want to do, but you don’t do it. What do you tell yourself that prevents you from doing it? What reasons do you give yourself for not doing it? How do you talk yourself out of doing it?
Take Leanne, for example. When she feels motivated to do something, she expects to do it and arranges time for it. She reminds herself of the ultimate value of the task. Let’s say, for example that she expects to be on time for a meeting with a customer with whom she wants to close a sale. As the time approaches, she prepares. She talks to herself about the meeting in positive terms. She imagines a good meeting with the customer. She places a high priority on that meeting and on closing the sale.
Leanne might even create two mental images, side by side. In one, she meets with the customer on time and the meeting gets off to a good start. In the other, she is late and the meeting gets off to a bad start. Both images make her want to be on time. She says to herself, “I better get going. I need to be on time.”
Conversely, when she avoids a task, she has a different strategy. She doesn’t plan ahead. When she thinks about doing it, she asks, “Do I really have to do this?” Then she realizes she has an option to avoid the task. She makes two side-by-side images of herself in her mind. In one image, she sees herself doing the task, but having difficulty with it or feeling inconvenienced. In the other image, she sees herself happily doing else that is easier and more convenient. Inevitably, Leanne chooses the latter option.
Notice the difference between these two strategies. Can you understand how is inevitable that she will pursue one task and avoid another? What are your strategies for motivation and avoidance? Can you detect the critical differences? Now think about the mental strategy you use to make yourself exercise or avoid exercise. For the next few days, run your motivation strategy instead of your avoidance strategy. You’ll discover you feel much more motivated!
11. Find a role model. Sometimes we do things that are difficult because we are inspired by another’s example. My role model for fitness is Ernestine Shepherd. In her 70’s she is a personal trainer, professional model, and competitive body builder. She didn’t start exercising until age 56. She inspires women seniors the world over to reach their physical potential.
Will I ever become a body-builder? No, but Ernestine’s message of “Determined… Dedicated… and Disciplined to be Fit” appeals to me. Her example motivates me and shows me that fitness is possible at any age. Who is your role-model?
12. Adapt to setbacks. No matter how much self-discipline you possess, sooner or later something unexpected will throw your exercise routine off track -moving to a new location, a family crisis, or a change in your work hours. You’ll need to regroup and adjust your routine to accommodate these changes. You might encounter an injury or illness or physical limitation that makes your favorite type of exercise no longer a good choice. In that case, you will need to find another type of exercise that better suits your needs. Make up your mind that instead of giving up, you’ll adapt and go to “plan b.”
13. Stop worrying about what other people think. One client told me her reason for not taking walks was that “I don’t want people looking at me and thinking about how fat I am.” I often wonder how many people avoid the gym, the swimming pool, the tennis court, or the dance floor because they are self-conscious about the way they look or move.
Feeling self-conscious is a waste of energy. Think about it this way. Wherever you go, whatever you do, there is always someone who is better-looking and more talented; there is always someone who is worse-looking and less talented. For every person who looks at you in disgust, there is always one who admires your effort – and the other 99 percent don’t care one way or the other. Get over it.
14. Develop a bit of selfishness. I’ve heard many people say they can’t exercise because they are too busy doing things for others – their families, their customers, their employers, or their students. Having a work ethic should not entail neglecting your health. In his best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote about taking time to “sharpen the saw.”
Covey asked his readers to imagine walking through the woods and coming upon someone working feverishly to saw down a tree. He looks exhausted. You ask how long he has been at it. He replies that he has been doing for over five hours. You ask, “Why don’t you take a break and sharpen that saw?” But he replies that he is too busy sawing.
When you “sharpen the saw,” you replenish your energies so that you have more patience and strength to give others what they want from you. When you restore your equilibrium you can give freely to others without feeling drained or resentful. Martyrdom is not fashionable. If it’s difficult to strike a balance between doing for others and taking time out for your own well-being, then develop a bit of selfishness. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself.
Finally, if you can’t get into the right mindset on your own, hire a life coach or a physical trainer. He or she can help you set workable goals, hold you accountable for taking action, help you figure out ways around the obstacles, and give you the encouragement to keep going. Many coaches and a few trainers will meet you by web cam. With a coach or trainer you have someone in your “corner” to provide emotional support and teach you the skills of self-motivation and self-discipline. It might be just what you need.
What is your Next Step?
Socrates said, “What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body and mind are capable.” What is your next step? Look over this list and implement at least one that will get you off your butt.
We maintain our homes, our cars, and our most prized possessions, often with respect and reverence. Shouldn’t we do the same with our bodies? Find the athlete, the warrior, the jock, the wild one within who yearns to express your physical vitality and energy. Break out of those bonds of sedentary lethargy and celebrate the body in motion. Develop a vitality that rejuvenates you and energizes your efforts. Exercise is a healing ritual, a sacred communion of the mind and body and spirit.