How to stick to an exercise routine: Five motivators that work

We can’t always trust ourselves to workout. On those mornings when you’ve got a workout planned but are feeling sluggish, cranky or maybe even hungover, it helps to have a friend waiting on you to get the ball rolling. Personally, having my friend Stephan waiting for me to go for a run has been the only thing that got me out of bed on more than one occasion.
By James S. Fell
Group of women working out Getty Images

We can’t always depend on ourselves to make it to the gym. We can be sneaky. So on those mornings when you’ve got a workout planned but are feeling sluggish, cranky or maybe even hungover, it helps to have a friend waiting on you to get the ball rolling. Personally, knowing my friend Stephan is meeting me to go for a run has been the only motivation to get me out of bed on more than one occasion. He acted as an external pressure, preventing me from slipping back into early-morning hibernation.

This outside pressure, called extrinsic motivation, is powerful, and can be a key ingredient in successfully integrating a fitness program into your daily routine. When your own motivation fails, having external pressure can keep you on track. Paul Plakas, trainer for the weight loss documentary show X-Weighted, once told me, “It’s hard for people to kick their own ass,” and he’s right. Everyone struggles with motivating themselves, even Olympians.

Competing in both speed skating and cycling, Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes has said that when she’s travelling, she’ll call friends in various cities ahead of time to schedule runs because the pressure of someone waiting on her is the only thing to get her to train. I asked her about it and she explained, “I was very fortunate to be on the receiving end of great extrinsic motivation,” Hughes told me. “My coach created an environment where team mates could feed off each others’ energy. You knew that everyone was expecting you to show up and work hard, and it really helps.”

If you’re looking for ways to ensure you’re getting in your workouts, try these five ideas:

1. Get a trainer
Caution should be used when hiring a trainer. You want someone with good qualifications, who’s a good personality fit and who understands your goals. Schedule regular sessions where you’ll be expected to show up and go hard. Even when you don’t have sessions scheduled, you’ll be motivated because a trainer can tell if you’ve been slacking on your own. You also have the motivation of wasting your own money if you skip classes that have been paid for.

2. Join a running group or other activity
If you’re not a runner there are plenty of examples of “couch to 5K” training programs. The beauty of this is that it’s the same group of people all the time. If you start off going and then dare to skip, they’ll wonder where you were. The pressure from the group, a social motivation, to show up and make the effort is a fantastic motivator regardless of the exercise. Being in the company of others has its own indirect benefits as well. Talking, laughing and sharing in the experience generates positive feelings which in turn, motivates you to attend.

3. Book a beach vacation
If you have the desire to look better in a bathing suit, book a vacation to a place where you’ll feel compelled to wear one. Maui is nice. However, know that when it comes to fitness, the tortoise rules, not the hare, so allow yourself ample time to achieve your desired outcome. Also, don’t undo all your hard work at an all-inclusive resort. And don’t forget to keep exercising while you’re there.

4. Make a pact
If you’re struggling with getting in shape, maybe you have a friend who is too. Make a pact with this person; become a team where you push and motivate each other. It’s helpful if you have similar goals and live or work near each other. You can do your workout routines/runs/bike rides/classes together, and even share a personal trainer to save money. Ensure this person is not someone who’s going to let you off easily or accept feeble excuses. Try getting your workouts in first thing in the morning before the chance to bail arises.

5. Get competitive
This is about signing up for a race or other competition. A friend of mine recently competed in a physique competition and got in amazing shape and I recently made a public declaration that I’d be running a 10k in under 40 minutes which served as a huge motivator. Once you sign up for a race and tell people you’ll be doing it, it pushes you to train. Making progress with every outing is also a great motivator. When you have something you’re building on, skipping a workout and knowing you’ll fall behind can help you stick with it. Try posting about the race on social media and updating family and friends so the expectation to complete the task stays relevant.

The one problem with extrinsic motivators is that they can disappear. A friend can cancel on you, a trainer can move, a class can end, so remember the need to adapt and overcome. If you lose your favourite extrinsic motivator don’t wait too long before you find a new one.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary. He writes the syndicated column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Chicago Tribune and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get your free Metabolism Report here.


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