If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to get in shape, now comes the hard part: sticking with it. This is the time when many of us begin to see our efforts derailed by an array of obstacles, including jobs, family responsibilities, a dislike of exercise or simple inertia.
But there are ways to avoid these exercise off-ramps. In my book, Fitter Faster, I share seven science-backed measures that can help you stay motivated and increase your odds of long-term success.
Seek instant gratification
As important as the long-term health benefits of exercise are, simply being aware of them isn’t enough to motivate most people. Instead, research suggests you should focus on the more immediate benefits.
A study of middle-aged women found that people whose main goal was to live longer or be healthier actually exercised less than those with “quality of life” goals, such as having more energy or less stress. Put another way, if you think exercise will help you cope better today with a stressful job or screaming kids, that’s more likely to get you to the gym than the notion that exercise will help you avoid a heart attack in 20 years.
The key is identifying what the short-term payoff of exercise is for you. Is it sounder sleep? A better mood? Clearer thinking? Less pain? More patience? Such benefits may not be instantly evident if you’re new to exercise, so determining which ones apply to you can take a little time. But once you figure it out, keep those rewards in mind – or better yet, post them on your bathroom mirror, fridge or anywhere else you can readily see them – so they provide a nudge, especially when you feel your willpower flagging.
Setting specific, measurable goals is also key to staying motivated. A vague wish, such as “I want to walk more,” isn’t enough. Instead, your goal should be something precise, like “I will be walking twice as far six weeks from now.”
While your goal should be challenging, it shouldn’t be unrealistic. For example, if you’ve never run before, it’s not reasonable to expect to run a marathon in a month. Nor is it realistic to think that walking for 30 minutes a day will give you a beach body. Setting goals such as these can lead to discouragement and cause you to give up when you fail to achieve them.
Keep track of your progress toward your goal. For some people, wearable fitness trackers or smartphone apps can be useful by providing hard data and encouragement. But you don’t have to use technology if it’s not your thing. Keeping a journal of your activity is perfectly fine. What’s important is to record your activity, in whatever way works for you, so you can see how well you’re doing.
Have a game plan
Getting sidetracked by daily events happens to all of us. Sometimes missing a workout is unavoidable because of an emergency or other unexpected event. But in most cases, inadequate time management is to blame. The solution is to plan ahead and make physical activity a priority.
Think of exercise as an important appointment. If you plan to exercise away from home, be prepared by packing a bag with what you’ll need and setting it by the door the night before. Keeping a packed bag of “emergency” fitness clothing and accessories in your car can be useful as well, in case you forget something or have an unplanned opportunity to work out.
Just as your goals should be realistic, so should your planning. For example, if you tend to be too tired or busy with family duties at the end of the day, don’t schedule a workout then; find another time that’s better suited to you. Likewise, if you plan to exercise at a park or a gym, choose one that’s nearby. The farther out of your way you have to go to work out, the more likely you are to blow it off.
It’s also important to have a back-up plan. Try to identify what might thwart your exercise plans on a given day — a meeting that could run long, for example — and figure out what you can do in response, such as exercising later in the evening or moving your routine to the next day.
Shorten your workouts
A lack of time is one of the main reasons for not sticking with exercise. But a growing body of research suggests that so-called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, can greatly reduce the amount of time you need to exercise while producing benefits that are the same as—or even greater than—what you get from conventional moderate-intensity cardio workouts.
Named the top fitness trend for 2018, HIIT involves going hard for, say, 30 seconds, then easy, hard, then easy, and so on—as opposed to exercising at the same intensity for 30 minutes or more. A wide array of exercises, from walking to biking, can be adapted to HIIT.
Studies show as little as 10 minutes of HIIT (including rest intervals) can be beneficial, so if that’s all the time you have, lace up your sneakers and go. The decreased time commitment, along with the fact that breaking up exercise into intervals can make it less boring, increases the odds that you’ll keep at it. In one study, researchers found that people with prediabetes were more likely to adhere to a HIIT regimen than to continuous moderate-intensity exercise, when exercising on their own for a month.
“Fun” may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think about exercise. But turning it into a game can make exercise more enjoyable and help you stick with it. A growing number of fitness apps immerse users in adventures, such as running from zombies, fighting aliens, escaping from Alcatraz or saving the world. A randomized study of two such apps, The Walk and Zombies, Run!, found that people who used them reported greater motivation to exercise regularly. And they were more likely to keep exercising during the 12-week study than people who didn’t use the apps.
Like fitness game apps, other forms of entertainment, such as books on tape, podcasts, movies or TV shows, can reduce boredom while you work out and provide a distraction from any discomfort you’re feeling. Saving certain entertainment — a series on Netflix you’ve been wanting to watch, for example — for only when you’re exercising can be especially motivating. That way, you’ll have something to look forward to and associate your workout with a treat that you don’t otherwise get.
Perhaps the most potent form of entertainment during exercise is music. A large body of research shows that music can enhance the enjoyment of even very strenuous exercise and increase the likelihood of sticking with a fitness program. These effects are due in part to music’s ability to decrease how hard we think we’re working.
But not all songs are equal when it comes to exercise. Research has found that tunes with 125 to 140 beats per minute are optimal during a workout and that songs at the upper end of this range are best suited for higher-intensity exercise. To figure out the tempo of your favorite tunes, check out Web sites such as songbpm.com or beatsperminuteonline.com.
Work out with a buddy
Working out with a friend not only makes exercise more enjoyable but also holds you accountable. You’re more likely to show up if you know that someone is expecting you. Obviously, the right partner is crucial.
Ideally, he or she should be in somewhat better shape than you are. That’s because exercising with someone who’s more capable than we are motivates us to try harder than we would alone — a phenomenon known as the Kohler effect. This has been demonstrated in studies, including one involving 58 college-age women who were randomly assigned to ride a stationary bike either by themselves or with a virtual partner, who was in a separate lab. The partners, whom people “met” via a pre-recorded Skype session, didn’t actually exist. The women were told that their partner’s bike-riding performance, which they could track with a “live” feed that was actually a recording, was somewhat better than their own. Women who believed they were riding alongside a partner pedaled, on average, for about 85% longer than those who rode alone.
This boost in motivation happens when others around you are just moderately better than you. If they’re far more advanced at an activity, the result can be just the opposite: You may be more likely to get discouraged and quit. That’s why if you’re, say, just beginning to jog, it’s probably not wise to work out with triathletes.
Of course, finding a suitable workout partner or group isn’t always possible. And some people simply prefer to go it alone. If you’re a solo exerciser, you may still be able to get the motivational benefits of a workout buddy or group via social media. In a study of people who participated in a Web-based walking program, those who were randomly assigned to an online community where they could communicate with other walkers were more likely to stick with the four-month program than those who had no access to the community.
Being rewarded for hard work can be a powerful incentive to continue. A review of 11 randomized studies collectively involving about 1,500 people concluded that using money as a reward makes recipients more likely to exercise and stick with it for up to six months and possibly longer.
How financial incentives are structured can influence their effectiveness. In one study, researchers gave 280 people the goal of reaching 7,000 steps per day. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of four groups: People in the first group received $1.40 for every day the goal was achieved (which adds up to $42 a month). Those in the second group were eligible to win a lottery prize of $1.40 for each day the goal was achieved. People in the third group received $42 in an online bank account on the first day of every month, with $1.40 deducted each day they failed to reach the goal. The fourth group served as a control with no financial incentive.
After 13 weeks, the clear winner was the group that had received money upfront. What’s notable is that the threat of “losing” $1.40 a day was a more powerful incentive than the promise of earning it. Scientists who study economics and decision theory call this phenomenon “loss aversion”: As much as we love receiving money, we hate losing it even more.
So how can you apply these findings to increase your own motivation? One way is to give a certain amount of money each month to someone you trust. If you reach your goal, you get the money back with the option of allocating it toward a reward such as a vacation. But if you fail to meet your goal, the other person keeps the money and gives it to a cause that you don’t like. You can also find Web sites or apps, such as stickK and Beeminder, that take your money and give it to charity or other users who have achieved their goals if you fail to meet yours.
However it’s done, putting your own money at stake can be an effective motivator, according to research. In one study, employees of a large company who made fitness commitments backed by their own funds went to the gym 50% more often than those who didn’t have this incentive.