If you’ve ever started a workout program that went really well for a few weeks, then slowly dropped off until eventually, you abandoned the plan completely, you’re definitely not alone. In fact, there’s probably not a more relatable experience when it comes to fitness.
Part of the reason is that it can be tough to maintain motivation to exercise, especially if it’s a new habit for you. Most people don’t feel motivated to work out all the time. So they rely on willpower and mantras like “no days off” and “no excuses” to push them through the workouts when they’re just not feeling it. Problem is, that approach can backfire.
According to experts, there’s a big difference between motivation and willpower, and staying motivated to exercise isn’t as out of reach as you might think.
Motivation is necessary; willpower is optional.
The key difference between the two is that motivation is just the trigger to do something in the present, whereas willpower implies a future benefit, explains Brooke Nicole Smith, Ph.D., a mind body coach and former cognitive psychology researcher.
Focusing on future benefits might work for some people, Smith says, but it can also make you hate exercise — which isn't helpful if you're trying to create a sustainable habit. “If the future benefit doesn't materialize, or when willpower is depleted by a difficult day at work, it's even harder to stick to the workout routine.”
On the other hand, motivation is all about the benefits you’ll earn in the here and now — ones that are much more likely to feel immediately fulfilling and rewarding. To maximize your motivation, exercise because it feels good, calms your nerves, and helps you sleep, rather than in service of an elusive future goal, Smith suggests.
We create our own motivation.
“Many people believe that motivation comes along randomly, like a bolt of lightning, rendering it hard to harness regularly,” says Melanie Shmois, MSSA, LISW-S, a life and weight loss coach and licensed social worker. “The truth is, motivation is actually a feeling, and all feeling states are created by our thoughts.”
“The truth is, motivation is actually a feeling, and all feeling states are created by our thoughts.”
—Melanie Shmois, MSSA, LISW-S
The good news: Because you can create motivation with your thoughts, it’s much more under your control than you might think.
One of the most failsafe ways to create your own motivation is by following some advice you’ve probably heard before: “You can actively cultivate motivation by creating and achieving specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (SMART) goals,” says Christina Pierpaoli Parker, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow of Clinical Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
This advice is almost annoyingly common, but if you really think about it, it makes sense. “Accumulating initially small ‘workout wins’ over time helps you foster the self-efficacy (or self “credit”) you need for setting and achieving other wellness goals. Over time, this process becomes self-reinforcing and maintains itself,” Parker explains. “In other words, you set a fitness goal, achieve it, feel good, set another, achieve it, and feel even better.”
8 ways to maintain workout motivation
So how do psychologists and trainers themselves stay motivated to work out? Here’s a selection of their best mental and practical tips and tricks.
1. Be honest with yourself about why you want to work out.
“For example, if you're telling yourself that you want to stay active because it's healthy, but deep down you're hoping to lose weight, it's going to be very hard to stay motivated,” Smith says.
"If you're telling yourself that you want to stay active because it's healthy, but deep down you're hoping to lose weight, it's going to be very hard to stay motivated."
—Brooke Nicole Smith, Ph.D.
To get to the real reason you want to maintain a workout routine, ask yourself “why” a few times. For example, if your reason is to be healthy, why do you want to be healthy? What does “healthy” mean to you? Keep asking why. “You know you've found your reason when thinking about it makes you a little emotional,” Smith notes. “That's your motivation. Think about your real reason and soak up the emotions it creates.”
2. Track your progress.
“Some people are really motivated by numbers and tracking,” says Alissa Tucker, a Master Trainer at AKT. She never recommends using weight as a method of tracking progress, but she does suggest a heart rate monitor for her clients who like to track their daily numbers. "Be mindful that some workouts will get your heart rate higher than others and never compare your results to others as everybody’s heart rate runs differently," Tucker adds.
3. Schedule sessions for the week ahead.
“On Sunday, book your week’s worth of gym sessions into your calendar and block out the time so that nothing else can pop up and take over,” suggests Lauren Vickers, trainer and Athletics Manager at F45 Training. Having a designated spot in your schedule for workouts makes it easier to feel excited about them, rather than stressed about when you’re going to fit them in. Vickers also recommends morning workouts if you can swing them, since that timing will help prevent your day’s to-do list from getting in the way.
4. On days that get hectic, squeeze mini workouts in when you can.
Some days, life just gets in the way. And then it keeps getting in the way, day after day. To maintain momentum, do something small. “Even if you don’t have a ton of time, you can start small with 20 squats while you’re brewing your morning coffee, 10 push-ups in between loading the laundry, and a 30-second plank hold before bed,” suggests Kristina Jennings, CSCS, a performance coach at Future.
"Even if you don’t have a ton of time, you can start small with 20 squats while you’re brewing your morning coffee, 10 push-ups in between loading the laundry, and a 30-second plank hold before bed."
—Kristina Jennings, CSCS
5. Pick a workout you actually like.
“The best workout of all is the one you'll actually do,” Smith says. “Plan activities you can look forward to. This sets you up for success and it allows you to actually enjoy the process. Also, stress is no joke. If you hate a workout so much you're going to spend all day dreading it, the stress is actually undermining a lot of the health benefits of regular exercise. Let it be fun and let it feel good.”
6. If you don’t feel like doing an entire workout, do half.
“I am human, so there are plenty of times when I don't feel like working out,” says Kenna Johnson, Nike Trainer and Co-Founder of Sona Fitness. If anybody tells you otherwise, they’re lying!” A lot of people think that a workout that’s less than an hour long just isn’t worth it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, Johnson says.
“I like to compare these situations to a car running low on gas. If that car is getting close to empty, it would be foolish to not put a little gas in it, right? Even if you only put $10 worth of gas in it, you still partially accomplished what you needed to do. Similarly, if I'm not feeling it, it's been a long day and I don't want to do my entire 50-minute workout, then doing 25 minutes of it is still better than nothing.”
7. Think about how you’ll feel post-workout.
“On days that I’m not training clients and I still want to get a workout in, I make listening to my body and honoring what it needs a priority,” Tucker says. “I know that I feel better once I’ve moved my body, so I make it a priority every day. Some days I don’t have the energy for a HIIT workout and I try to honor that by doing yoga or going for a hike, a walk, or a light bike ride instead of feeling guilty if I don’t push myself to the max.”
"Some days I don’t have the energy for a HIIT workout and I try to honor that by doing yoga or going for a hike, a walk, or a light bike ride instead of feeling guilty if I don’t push myself to the max.”
—Alissa Tucker, Master Trainer at AKT
8. Tell someone about your workout goals.
“Sharing your goals with loved ones gives you a valuable support network for when motivation wanes,” explains Emily Servante, a personal trainer at Ultimate Performance. Research shows that giving progress reports to a supportive friend or group may also help you be more successful in accomplishing your goals. “This could be sharing your workout log, your step count, or food diary with an ‘accountability partner’ or friend as a way to stay on track.”