How Can I Stay Motivated to Exercise?

A group of six coworkers taking a walk on a break from work
Photo: william87/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

I can’t count how many times I have started a workout routine. Motivated, ready and eager to see results. So I start running. Or I go to the gym. Or I purchase a pack of barre exercise classes.

And I make it happen. My schedule magically cooperates, and I find a way to squeeze it into my day. I sweat. I feel good. I wonder why I ever stopped in the first place.

And then I remember why. Because it happens again. Work gets busy. The kids’ activities increase. The weather changes. Or I get bored of the same workout room, or the same running route, or the same moves. As such, motivation wanes. I skip a day. Then another. Before I know it, three months have passed, and I’m starting from the beginning. Again.

This cycle has persisted throughout my adult life. I claim I’m too busy. I work full time. I had small kids. Then I had big kids. Summer was too hot. Winter was too cold.

I know this cycle could have continued indefinitely. But something clicked. Actually, a few things clicked. Around the time I turned 40 (it’s never too late), I was able to make physical activity a regular part of my life, mostly because of the five tips below.

Tip #1: Interact with Other Active People

At work. Just before I turned 40, I became a dietitian. It was a new career and a new work culture. Behind me were the office days of projects, deadlines and eating lunch in my cubicle.

I started working in a cardiac rehab facility. I was surrounded by exercise physiologists and dietitians all day. They all worked out in the exercise room during the lunch hour or went for a walk after eating. During the winter months, they walked inside the building. When the weather was warmer, they walked outside.

Being surrounded by physically active people at work changed how I viewed my work day, and how I looked at my surroundings. They showed me what was possible, and then I showed myself what I was capable of. Work could no longer be an excuse.

You, too, might find that other people at work are also looking for motivation. Instead of chatting over a long lunch, invite them to talk over a walk after eating. Having a walking buddy at work can keep you both inspired, and also give you both the much needed break for stress management during your long work day.

On social media. I’ll admit, even these days, I sometimes find myself on the couch, no intention to move, lazily liking food porn, political memes and kid pics on social media. Then I see it. A sweaty selfie of someone posting their post-workout pride. Beaming with exhilaration. Looking strong and energized. And then I want to feel that way, too. Because I know how good it feels.

In a group. As a facilitator for a diabetes prevention program, I meet with my groups weekly, and the accountability keeps us all motivated. We share ideas, root each other on, and role model for each other.

In an exercise class. For me, making a financial commitment to a scheduled workout gets me out of work on time and straight into my workout clothes. Not because I’m so excited for the class (and often, I’m grumbling that I made the commitment in the first place), but because I don’t want to waste the non-refundable class fee. But I can always guarantee that I will leave the class feeling that post-workout high.

At home. Over the years, my family and I have become physically active together. My husband and I walk or run together almost daily. We play basketball with my son. We climb at aerial parks with my daughter. Our vacations often include hiking and swimming. I love that my kids are learning about different ways to be active, and gaining the confidence to do so.

Through our kids’ sports, my family has met other active families. This has allowed us to combine activity with our kids’ social lives. There’s no better cardio than trying to keep up with sixth graders on the basketball court.

Tip #2: Do Different Activities Throughout the Week

Doing the same workout in the same place can get old quick. Variety not only keeps exercise fresh and interesting, it challenges your body in different ways. Changing things up will help your body get stronger and more conditioned so you can keep seeing results.

Vary the activity. For example, you might walk one day. Attend a yoga class another day. Use an elliptical machine on a different day. Or you might do mostly cardio one day, then mostly resistance and core training another. Or perhaps you keep a standing workout date with a partner, but also enjoy some alone time on other days.

Vary the intensity and duration. Challenge yourself to do something most days of the week, but some days can be more intense than others. You might have a 30-minute walk one day, then a 45-minute HIIT class another. Some days, you might only be able to squeeze in a 10-minute walk.

Whatever variety you choose, aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity, and resistance training twice a week, a general guideline for good health. Changing the intensity and duration can keep you from burning out physically.

Recognize all physical activity, not just formal exercise. You know when you’re working up a sweat. Whether it’s a traditional exercise or working around the house, all activity counts. How Can I Stay Motivated to Exercise? - When I’m running up and down the stairs doing laundry, scrubbing the bathroom, hauling around the vacuum cleaner, I know my body is moving. And that’s what counts. After two or three hours of housework, my muscles feel as fatigued as if I had attended an hour barre class.

I also love working in the yard, especially during planting season. Shoveling mulch, pushing and dumping the wheelbarrow, and walking circles around the yard is a great way to get a full body workout.

Running errands are also a great way to get steps. Be sure to park at the back of the lots, and maybe even squeeze in a few brisk laps around the store. You won’t be the only one walking at the mall.

Tip #3: Dress for Success

Wear your workout clothes. Often, the hardest part of working out is getting started. And putting on your workout clothes can be the very first barrier. Between work, family and all of life, I have become fully aware about the value of time. As such, you do not always know when the opportunity to exercise will present itself. When it does, I like to be ready. If all I have to do is put on my shoes and head out the door, I am more likely to seize the moment. Otherwise, the extra step of changing clothes can feel daunting enough to keep me down. So instead of changing into your pajamas after work, put on your sweats first.

Tip #4: Take a Break

Rest. Recover. Reset. Take a day off. Not only will it give you a mental break, but it will allow your body to restore itself, recover, and get stronger. The majority of the change we see in our bodies will take place between exercise, not during. It is after activity when our muscles recover and grow, when our fat stores are mobilized and redistributed, and when our metabolism is enhanced for better energy production.

Take this time to pamper yourself. Whether you relax with a book, meditate, or do some therapeutic shopping, it is as important to tend to our emotional health as well as our physical health.

Tip #5: Do What You Love

I am often asked, “What type of exercise should I do?” My answer is to do what you enjoy. Whether it is running, swimming, or Zumba, mix it up and make it fun. The more you love what you do, the less likely you will give it up.

Joyce B. Patterson on Twitter
Joyce B. Patterson
Joyce B. Patterson, MPH, RDN, BC-ADM, is a diabetes educator in Ann Arbor, MI. She is also a health coach for The Diabetes Prevention Program. She is author of the blog Connect with her there and on Twitter.