Getting Motivated to Start a Workout Program

If your resolutions to get fit usually fall apart long before Valentine’s Day, this year can be different. Whether you’re a beginner or a regular at the gym, research shows that simple shifts in the way you approach exercise can help you get and stay motivated to stick with it.

Choose the Right Goal

Exercising to slim down or fit into your skinny jeans? You might want to rethink that. A study from the University of Michigan found that women who worked out to improve their quality of life, rather than boost their health or age better, exercised the most consistently. The researchers say that when you don’t see results that match your goal (such as smaller numbers on the scale), you’re likely to feel discouraged and give up. But thinking of exercise as “me time,” or something that just makes you feel good, helps you stay the course.

Likewise, another study from the U.K. found that gym goers who set goals about the process of exercise, such as maintaining good form while lifting weights, enjoyed their workouts more and were better able to stick with exercise compared to people who set goals related to their appearance, like losing weight.

Make a Realistic Plan

No matter what your age or how inexperienced or experienced you are, choose an exercise routine that’s challenging enough to be interesting, but not so difficult that it makes you feel bad. Otherwise, you’re more likely to quit, says Alan Chu, PhD, director of the Motivation and Performance Research Lab at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

Not sure where to start? Hire a certified trainer, or if you have a health condition, ask your doctor to recommend a physical therapist. (If you don’t want to meet in person, you should be able to find someone who can work with you remotely.)

Setting a regular time to exercise ups the odds you’ll stick with it. Instead of trying to be a weekend warrior, commit to working out most days, even if it’s just for 15 minutes or several quick 5- to 10-minute sessions. “Be realistic about your schedule and likes and dislikes,” says Jennifer Wisniewski, a life coach in Chicago.

Don’t go overboard buying equipment unless you’re sure you’ll use it. But sometimes signing up for a gym subscription or buying a new pair of sneakers can give you an extra boost to get started, Wisniewski says.


Focus on Fun

If you’ve been doing the same workout for a long time, switching it up can help renew your enthusiasm for fitness. New to exercise? Don’t hop on the treadmill just because that’s what your spouse or best friend does. Instead, think about what kind of activity you’d actually enjoy. If you’re not sure, commit to trying a few things.

“Come up with different fitness ideas that are new and fun,” says Chu, who’s a competitive table tennis player. You can try different workout videos on YouTube or using a fitness platform like Peloton, which offers more than 1,000 different fitness classes on-demand.

Fake It Until You Make It

You’re not going to feel motivated every time you’re supposed to exercise. That’s normal, but it doesn’t mean you should skip out on your sweat session. Simply changing the way you talk to yourself on days when you’re not “in the mood” can help you follow through. “Tell yourself, ‘I want to do this’ rather than ‘I have to,’” Chu says.

You may also want to try thinking about the last workout you loved. A University of New Hampshire study found that people who recalled positive memories about fitness were more likely to exercise the following week compared to those who thought of negative memories or didn’t recall previous workouts at all.  

Don’t Go It Alone

“Find workout buddies to keep you accountable,” Chu says. Even if your friends and family won’t exercise with you, having them check in with you at the end of the day to make sure you did can be helpful.

If you’re surrounded by couch potatoes, don’t despair. “Join workout groups on social media, follow experts on Facebook or Instagram who specialize in exercise, or hire a virtual coach,” Wisniewski says. “You want someone to hold you accountable, and you may make new friends in the process.”

WebMD Feature


International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: “Rebranding exercise: closing the gap between values and behavior.”

Michelle Segar, PhD, director, Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center, University of Michigan; author, No Sweat.

International Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology: “Effect of Goal Setting on Motivation and Adherence in a Six‐Week Exercise Program.”

Alan Chu, PhD, director, Motivation and Performance Research Lab; director, Motivation and Performance (MAP) Research Team, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay.

Jennifer Wisniewski, life coach, Chicago.

Memory: “Using memories to motivate future behaviour: An experimental exercise intervention.”

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