Most people recognize the numerous benefits of exercise. So why is it so difficult to stay consistent with an exercise program? If you thought, “I don’t have the time” “I don’t have enough energy” “I’m not motivated” or “I don’t have the willpower,” you’re not alone. Most people who avoid exercise provide these explanations.
The problem with these barriers is that they’re difficult to change. If you have good intentions and believe you should exercise, how are you supposed to magically find the time, energy, willpower, or motivation to exercise?
For new or difficult activities, motivation tends to follow behavior. Psychologists promote behavior change by helping people create workable plans to modify the physical and social environment. When you create a supportive context for behavior change, you’re more likely to follow through, and your beliefs about the behavior will become more optimistic.
In addition, people tend to be more motivated to participate in activities that they do well, that allow them to experience personal control, and that provide opportunities to build relationships with other people.
So rather than trying to rely on difficult-to-define abilities like “willpower,” create a logical behavior change plan, maintain consistency, and watch your exercise behavior and motivation increase together.
- Don’t have enough time to exercise? Schedule it. We schedule other obligations like work meetings, classes, and dinners with friends. Why not exercise? If you’re not used to scheduling, use a free electronic calendar (like Google Calendar). Making a commitment is one of the best ways to stay consistent with any behavior.
- Create antecedents or cues to exercise. Sometimes we need a stimulus to get us going. One option is to sync your smartphone to an electronic calendar and set up e-mail or text message reminders to exercise. You can even make the messages funny or meaningful to inspire you. Another strategy is to put your workout clothes by your bed at night so you’ll see them first thing in the morning. Do you workout with with a friend? Agree to call each other before meeting up to make sure you’re both ready to go.
- Keep track of your workouts. Get a notebook or create an Excel worksheet to monitor your progress. When did you exercise? For how long? At what intensity? How did you feel during? After? If you record data like this, you’ll be aware of your consistency and improvements, which is one way to increase that mysterious motivation that’s so hard to come by.
- Schedule exercise time with a friend. Social support is a powerful behavior change tool. You and your friend will be less likely to skip a workout if you make a commitment to each other.
- Reinforce your exercise behavior with planned consequences. If “feeling good” after a workout were enough to influence regular intense activity, few people would have a problem with consistency. The reality is that, especially when you’re gradually working your way back to exercising regularly, feeling good might not be enough, and there’s no guarantee you will feel good each time you exercise. Instead, try using enjoyable activities as planned consequences. One option is to make an arrangement with yourself to watch TV in the evening only if you exercise first. To make this strategy more effective, ask another person, like a family member or roommate, to help you–by holding onto the remote control, for example. This strategy shouldn’t be overused. It’s more effective in the early stages of behavior change. Over time, with repetition, and as your fitness improves, you may find that your need for environmental control disappears.
- Congratulate yourself. Remind yourself during and after exercise that you’ve accomplished something. Behavior change isn’t easy, so give yourself credit. Your self-talk might be as simple as “I did it! Great job!” but it can also be useful to connect your message to your goal. For example, if you exercise for your health, you might tell yourself “Today I took another step toward improving my health. I’m proud of my effort.” You can think about your self-talk message or you can say it out loud–which might have a bigger impact. Although you might be embarrassed to verbally congratulate yourself, if you do it privately, nobody else will know.
- Start with manageable activities. Many people attack their new exercise programs with enthusiasm, a pattern that seems to peak around the new year when resolutions are being made. Often these changes are unreasonably ambitious–daily and intense exercise, restrictive diets, and battling through fatigue. But how long can this intensity be maintained? Instead of pushing yourself too hard, set yourself up for success. If you’re not exercising at all, you might commit to walking a few days a week for 30 minutes at scheduled times. If you can accomplish your goal for 2-3 weeks, you’ll likely experience greater confidence in your ability to maintain an exercise program. This confidence is called “self-efficacy,” which is a belief about your own ability to effectively engage in a behavior. Once you start to change your behavior and your self-efficacy is elevated, then you might consider increasing the time, frequency, or intensity of your workouts.
- Give yourself options. Even if you’re scheduling your workouts, build some flexibility into your plan to allow yourself to decide which workout you feel like doing that day. Making choices supports our need for autonomy, and it’s a great way to build a sense of personal control over exercise behavior.
- Change your lifestyle. Exercise does not require you to purchase workout gear and gym memberships or set aside time for 30-60 minute workouts. The problem with separating exercise from other activities is that it’s easier to step away from being active when life gets busy or stressful. We’ve all heard suggestions to “take the stairs” and “park far away from the entrance to the mall” as examples of things we can do to stay more active. But there are other creative options for reacquainting ourselves with activity, especially if “not enough time” is our go-to reason for being sedentary. Some ideas: use a standing desk at work, take walking work meetings, do push-ups while watching TV, do a pull-up on a doorway pull-up bar every time you walk into a room, play recreational sports, take a bike ride to the grocery store, chase your dog at the dog park, go dancing at a club or dance studio, or help a friend move. The more you can make activity a part of life, the easier it is to stay consistent.
What do you think? Have you tried some of these strategies? Are there others you like to use? I welcome your comments below.