Staying Motivated to Work Out
By Dan Martin
How do I stay motivated to work out? I am a clinical psychologist and am frequently asked this question in my practice. I wrote the following for one of my patients, and I thought others might be interested as well.
A few caveats first. Being a psychologist and researcher, I have written many scholarly articles with citations of the literature. I am not going to do that here. Rather, the following is based on my understanding of the psychological literature, my experience working with people who are seeking motivation to work out, and my personal experience working out at a variety of gyms for the last 30 years. Also, I am going to focus on the psychological factors that will help you stay motivated. Others can discuss the benefits of certain types of exercise or gyms from the perspective of their professional disciplines.
The reason I recommend that everyone work out should be self-evident, but from a psychological perspective you may not know that consistently working out with intensity has been shown to decrease depression, decrease anxiety, increase concentration, increase focus, and increase stamina. Also, when I am treating people who have substance abuse issues, working out is often a great alternative. So why doesn’t everyone work out on a regular basis?
Most psychologists believe that the reason people do things is multiply determined. We do things we don’t want to do or not do things we want to do for many reasons, some of which we are aware and some of which are outside our awareness. In addition, it is much easier to keep doing things that are familiar to you than start doing something that is unfamiliar. Because of this, I like to recommend that people use as many of the following recommendations as possible to combat the reasons that are keeping them from working out. The more of the following you implement, the more likely you will stay motivated to work out over an extended period of time.
- Form a healthy addiction. Most of us have unhealthy addictions. What I try to help people do is form a healthy addiction to working out. At first, going to the gym may seem quite difficult, but over time many people are able to turn it into a habit or even an addiction.
- Put your workout schedule on your calendar. Working out should be as important as going to work, picking up the kids, or going to the doctor. I schedule my workouts on my Outlook calendar along with consulting appointments, patient visits, and family events. This helps keep things consistent and doesn’t let other things get in the way.
- Seek out and accept help. Everyone can benefit from good coaching, from beginners to advanced athletes. Find a place to work out that has qualified professional coaches who know what they are doing. Seek them out and have them help you set up your routine or schedule. One reason I often recommend CrossFit is the quality of the coaching. Not only will you be able to seek the coaches out, but you will not be able to avoid them. They will make sure that you are doing things right.
- Listen to and trust your coaches. Along with seeking out help, you must accept what your coaches say. Sometimes this isn’t easy, but trust that they have your best interests in mind. Unlike what a lot of people think about CrossFit, at first most of the time the coaches will tell you that you are trying to lift too much weight and you should reduce the load. Also, they will correct your form even if you think you are the master at a particular exercise if you are not. When I first started CrossFit I was strong but my form was awful. The coaches wouldn’t let me increase my weight until my form improved dramatically. On the other hand, after you have been at it for awhile, trust in your coaches when they encourage you to go out of your comfort zone. This is where true progress takes place.
- Rely on others to help you get to the gym. It is much easier to go to the gym if you know someone is there waiting for you and that you can work out with while there. If you don’t know anyone that is working out at your gym, start talking to others that tend to be there when you are there and make a commitment to them that you will be there the following day. One of my favorite things about CrossFit is that members are typically welcoming to new members, want to learn your name, and want to get to know you. This is much different than my experience in some gyms where you can go there every day for a month and not a single person makes eye contact.
- Join a community. One of the strongest motivators to consistently work out is to belong to a work out community. This would involve not only having friends at the gym, but also doing things with these people outside of the gym. A great benefit to CrossFit gyms is that they typically have a very strong community where people work out together but also do some charity work and social events together. Being involved in this community makes it that much easier to consistently work out.
- Constantly vary your workouts. A surefire way to lose your motivation is to do the same thing every time you go to the gym. No matter how motivated you are, if you only spin, go on the treadmill, or do Bodypump you will not last long. Instead, constantly vary what you do to keep yourself interested and your mind sharp. I enjoy CrossFit because each time I walk into the gym, I have no idea what I am going to do that day. Some days we run, some days we row, some days we do heavy lifting, some days we do gymnastic moves, and some days we do it all.
- Work out with intensity. If you are going to make the effort to go to the gym, try to work out with intensity. Walking on a treadmill while watching TV or leisurely biking while reading a magazine is most likely a waste of your time. You get out what you put in. Over time, working out with intensity will be more enjoyable and you will receive much more benefit than if you simply go through the motions.
- Tell people about it. Research shows that the more you tell others about your plans to make a major life change (working out on a regular basis), the more likely you will do it. Tell people that you are making the change and ask them to check up on you. If you can, form an online community and check in with others on a regular basis. Many CrossFit gyms have this available and most find it to be a huge benefit.
- Make it fun/don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic. Going to the gym on a regular basis should be something you look forward to rather than dread. Find something you enjoy and be enthusiastic in your pursuit. Throw yourself into it with as much enthusiasm as you can muster. If you aren’t enthusiastic, fake it until you become more enthusiastic. Believe it or not, this works for many people.
- Set short-term goals. Small goals are very motivating to many people. At first, set easily attainable goals such as going to the gym 4 days this week or losing a few pounds this month. Once those goals are reached, you can set additional goals such as running a mile in a certain time, entering a beginners’ competition or race, being able to lift a certain amount within the next month, or something similar. People stay more motivated if they are working towards short-term goals.
- Reward yourself. I am not going to review the behavioral principles here, but it is helpful to reward yourself when you reach your goals. While it is true that the way you start to feel after working out intensely on a regular basis is reward in and of itself, I recommend rewarding yourself when you reach your short-term goals. Rewards could be a good dinner, new piece of athletic gear, fun night out, or whatever else will keep you motivated. After I worked out 5 days a week for 3 months in a row I bought myself the camouflage Reebok Nanos I had been eyeing.
- Be consistent with brief breaks. If you want to form a healthy addiction, you have to work out consistently and not allow yourself extended breaks. Set the goal of 3, 4, or 5 days a week and stick to it. If you go on vacation, decide ahead of time whether you try to work out during the vacation or if you take the time off. However, the day you get back you must return to the gym. The longer you go without a workout, the easier it will be to continue to avoid it. Over the last year, I have taken one planned week off from working out. The rest of the year I have worked out at least 3 days a week. Now that the healthy addiction is in place it feels strange to take a rest day. Speaking of which…
- Avoid overtraining. You must listen to your body and avoid overtraining. Your coaches will help you figure out how consistently and how many days a week you should work out. The rule of thumb I follow is I try to not work out more than 3 days in a row. The rest day is extremely important to allow your mind and body a chance to recover from the intensity of the workouts. Also, taking a day off often increases your motivation to return to the gym the day after the break. Don’t neglect this important part of training.
- You have to eat right. A key way to enjoy the potential benefits of working out on a consistent basis is to also eat right. Changing your diet for the better will help you see more progress, which will keep you motivated.
If you are thinking about making a change, do it now! The longer you wait, the less likely it is you will make the first move.
Dan Martin, Ph.D., is a board certified clinical psychologist with a private practice in West Hartford. He also has a Level 1 Certification as a CrossFit trainer.