It’s been almost nine months since your New Year’s resolution to start exercising and get fit and perhaps things haven’t gone as planned. Maybe you started out strong only to slack off around tax day; maybe you’ve been diligent only to recently burn out, or—gasp!—what if you never even started your exercise regimen at all?
Whatever your situation, we all need new motivators to keep our butts in gear, and not just for a week or two around the turn of the year. Although I’m religious about exercising—usually five to seven times a week, almost without exception—it’s taken me a while to figure out what works and how I can maintain the motivation to keep heading out the door. I constantly have to come up with ways to keep things interesting, fun, and challenging, lest I find myself with cobwebs in my running shoes.
1. Set a goal, and then add numbers and action words.
Imagine trying to follow a Julia Child recipe where, instead of standard measurements, she gave vague estimates, like “two handfuls of flour, followed by a fistful of sugar, then some eggs, a shaking of baking soda …” Chances are, if you made it to the end of the recipe, your soufflé would be nowhere near as successful as hers and a better chance that you would’ve given up halfway through, having not been able to follow the nebulous directions.
This same idea—that specific plans are easier to follow and stick with than unclear ones—should dictate our approach to fitness. Instead of axioms like “exercise more” or “get in shape,” which don’t really give much in the way of direction, we should set specific, tangible goals and how we’ll achieve them, things like, “exercise five days a week for thirty minutes,” or “be able to run a 5K in three months.” Our goals should be realistic so we’re not overwhelmed and once we’ve reached them, we can set new ones.
2. Write it down.
Prioritize your workouts as you would any other meeting or appointment and write them down in your calendar, or make your own workout log. Having a written schedule is one of the best ways to keep the guesswork out of what we’re going to do that day and holds us visibly accountable. Furthermore, by keeping a log of what we’ve done (or haven’t), we can track progress or make up for weeks where we didn’t do as much as planned.
3. Sign up for an event.
The last time I noticed my workouts getting shorter and my motivation dwindling to dread, I decided to take the plunge and commit to something I’d always wanted to do: a half-ironman. After dropping some cash and finding a free online training program (where someone has already made the schedule for you—much easier) my focus was honed and I no longer had the luxury of skipping workouts—I had to train! Having a deadline and knowing that on race day friends and family would be watching resulted in one of the greatest motivators—fear of humiliation.
With the proliferation of fun runs, beginner triathlons, and casual bike rides, you needn’t be fast or particularly skilled (I’m not) to sign up for an event or competition; anyone can train, race, and cross the finish line.
4. Get a partner/friend and make dates.
It’s easy to flake out on ourselves; it’s much harder to flake out on friends or others with whom we’ve made plans. Set up weekday gym time with friends, make a standing running date with a neighbor, or search online for other active people in your area. Having a commitment to others not only makes us more likely to stick with it, it also makes it much more fun.
5. Join a team or club.
We can’t always find exercise partners every day of the week, and sometimes it’s just not convenient to meet up with someone during the workweek. That’s where organized teams come into play—they provide a schedule with various times to meet and you just have to show up.
I used to swim with friends twice a week, but when I moved to a new city, I was without the normal motivators. So, I signed up for a master’s swim team (located throughout the country, includes all levels). Similarly, most cities have running clubs, hiking clubs, and informal basketball and soccer pick-up games.
6. Be the early bird.
There are many reasons why working out in the morning is beneficial, but chief among them may be that we’re more likely to stick with our workout plans when we do. A study at the University of Texas found that morning exercisers were more consistent than afternoon or evening exercisers.
7. Learn something new.
Even if you’re an old dog, you can still pick up a new trick, or maybe just hone one you’ve let sit idle for some time. Taking tennis lessons, hip-hop dance classes, or a fencing class at the local community college will inject something new and interesting in our workout routine, and help keep us interested and sweating.
8. Change your view of exercise.
What if your doctor told you that there was something she could prescribe for anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia, obesity, depression, cancer prevention, and a slew of other conditions? Chances are you’d laugh in her face and ask how much the drug companies paid her to say that. But according to the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Association, who last year launched their “Exercise as Medicine” campaign, physical activity really can help cure and prevent many ailments and should be prescribed more often as a remedy.
Likewise, instead of focusing on how many calories are burned during a workout, we should remember that we’re out exercising for a more important goal—our current and future health and well-being.
9. Party with your inner athlete.
Not everyone considers herself an athlete, but that’s why we all have to find out what it is that makes us one. For some, that’s running, for others it’s yoga, and for others it’s dancing around the apartment to techno. It should go without saying, but finding the sport/class/activity that you like will make it easier to stick with your exercise plans. Mix it up with other things you like, and have fun while doing them or switch to something new.
10. Don’t wait …
… to sign up for a lesson or secure a gym membership. In reality, you can start today, with one of the easiest and most accessible forms of exercising: walking. Throw on an old pair of shoes and a T-shirt, and you’re ready to go one step in the right direction toward making exercise a normal part of your life.
If you’re unsure of good walking routes near where you live, check out mapmyrun.com, where users post routes, mileage, and descriptions of their runs (or walks) throughout the nation. You can also use interactive maps to trace a course starting from your house to estimate mileage and time.
By setting new goals and challenges for ourselves, recruiting friends and training partners, and refocusing why it is we exercise, perhaps we can all make physical activity the norm, not the exception, and say goodbye to those failed New Year’s resolutions.