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How To Get Motivated To Exercise (Or Do Anything Else)

How To Get Motivated To Exercise

Whenever somebody signs up for my newsletter I send them an email asking one simple question:

What’s holding you back?

The purpose of this email is to show readers that I’m an actual person who wants to help them start making positive changes in their life.

When I first started doing this I was expecting to get lots of different replies, but almost every email I have received has had the same theme: laziness. People don’t reach their goals because they don’t know how to get motivated to exercise, or simply perceive themselves as being lazy people.

Unfortunately, people tend to think of motivation as one of those things that you either have or you don’t. You’re either a lazy person or a motivated person. I think there’s more to it than that.

The people who can seemingly force themselves to get up and work like Trojans all day, while you can’t even get out of bed, understand the process of getting motivated. They might do it without realising, but it remains a process nonetheless.

There’s a a series of steps you can take to reach just about any goal. This extends to all areas of your life, not just exercise. You can use these steps to clearly define any goal and systematically work towards it.

Step 1: Clearly Define A Goal

Maybe you want to change the way you look. Maybe you want to live a long and healthy life. Maybe you’ve been told that you need to start exercising by a doctor.

But where do you start? These are all great reasons to exercise, but they aren’t specific. Without setting a specific goal, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and find yourself thinking “I’ll get started tomorrow”.

You need to think about what’s most important to you, and what small steps you can take towards achieving it. This starts with setting one, measurable, specific goal. You should:

  • Write it down: You can write it down in your journal, on a post-it note, on your phone, or on your computer. It doesn’t matter. The point is that you need a permanent record of your goal.
  • Make it easy: Don’t set a difficult goal. It shouldn’t be something that you are months or even years away from achieving. It should be something like five minutes of exercise each day. Even a busy, single-mum can find 5 minutes for herself each day. After a month you can change your goal to 10 minutes of exercise, then 15 minutes a month later and so on…
  • Be specific: Really, really specific. It shouldn’t just be ‘I’m going to do 5 minutes of exercise a day’. It should be ‘I’m going walk for 5 minutes at 10am each day’, or ‘As soon as I wake up I’m going to do one circuit of the Beginner Bodyweight Workout’. You should be able to say whether you definitely hit or missed your goal in each day.
  • Have a trigger: A ‘trigger’ is something you do immediately before something you do out of habit. For example, you might always brush your teeth right after you shower. The shower is the trigger for brushing your teeth, and you therefore never forget to brush your teeth. I exercise after I have a cup of coffee in the morning. You need to find your own trigger. It could be as soon as you get home, as soon as your lunch hour starts, or as soon as you wake up.
  • Only have one: You shouldn’t have more than one goal at a time.

Step 2: Get Started

“80 percent of success is showing up” – Woody Allen

I didn’t start exercising for months and months because I was obsessed with finding the ‘perfect routine’. I wanted a routine that burned fat and built muscle simultaneously, made me strong, improved endurance, made me fast, and was so good that I would be able to do it for the rest of my life without having to think about changing it.

That was crazy. I got further and further away from my goal by not doing anything. This is known as paralysis by analysis.

If I had known about step 1 (above) I would have had one, clearly defined goal in mind and could have got started right away. Those months I wasted would have been spent making progress and finding out what type of exercise I really enjoy.

That’s the important part. Actually following through on your defined goal is the only way to get that much closer to where you want to be, and discover which exercises are right for you.

For those of you who are like me and are suffering from paralysis by analysis, I created the Beginner Bodyweight Workout. It can be done anywhere, at any time, and can be adjusted to suit any level of fitness. It will help you to burn fat and build muscle without being overly complicated. Sign up for the newsletter at the end of the post and I’ll send it over.

Step 3: Record Your Progress

How To Get Motivated To Exercise

This is where real motivation comes from.

Once people have got over the initial feeling of hating exercise, they start to want to do a little better each time they work out.

I think that’s what makes running so addictive. People can lace up their shoes, head out, and try to go a little bit further than they did before. It’s simple and it’s easy. You know what route you took last time, or what distance you covered, and you only need to go a little further.

But people don’t do a very good job of this when they do other types of workouts. Typical weight or bodyweight workouts include a number of different exercises, and unless you keep a log of what you have done it’s easy to forget when you come to your next session.

Having a record of how many push-ups you did in your last work out will give you that drive to do more. Even if it’s just one more, you know you’re making progress. You know you’re closer to achieving your goals.

I like to write everything down in a training journal. I have it with me during my workouts and write down everything I do as I go, but that’s just me. There are lots of different ways of measuring results. I recommend Fitocracy to almost everybody. You log your workouts, get points for the exercises you have done, can set yourself challenges, and people in the same boat as you offer support and advice. It’s this social side of it that makes it so effective, which brings me on to step number 4…

Step 4: Find A Community

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” – Jim Rohn

You need to surround yourself with people who will support you.

It might be a close friend who shares your ambition, a group of like-minded people (such as CrossFit), or an online platform like Fitocracy or MyFitnessPal.

Your friends and family won’t always share your ambitions, and shouldn’t be relied upon to support you because it’s not in their immediate interests. As an example, your friends might want you to go out drinking with them, so they won’t support your decision to stay in because you’re watching your calories.

A good support group or close friend will encourage you to stay committed to your goals because you don’t want to let them down. They will encourage and congratulate you on your hard work, but also call you out when you skip a workout or overeat.

Step 5: Reward Yourself To Make It A Habit

In his book, The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explains how habits are formed. Based on studies, he suggests that forming a habit is a three-step process. There’s a trigger, the process itself, and a reward.

To illustrate this process, Duhigg uses the example of toothpaste. When it was first invented, people were made aware of the benefits, but nobody bought it because there was no psychological reward. Then somebody introduced the mint flavouring, and it flew off the shelves. It’s not the fact that you know it’s good for you that makes you want to use it, it’s the fact that you want that ‘minty-fresh’ feeling before starting or ending your day.

You know the benefits of exercise, but you don’t want to do it because there isn’t an immediate reward.

As time goes by, you will find that the reward from exercise is the way it makes you feel afterwards, or the fact that your support group tell you how great you are doing. But if you’re just starting out you need to reward yourself with something you already enjoy, such as a bar of chocolate or glass of wine.

Having a cue (step 1), a killer routine (step 2), and a reward is the key to making exercise into a habit. After a few weeks you will begin to enjoy exercise for it’s own sake. You won’t have to have an internal argument about whether or not you are going to exercise today. You’ll just do it.

Be The Change

Motivation isn’t just something people either have or don’t have. It’s something that can be cultivated.

Yes, it takes time.

Yes, there will be setbacks.

And yes, there will be naysayers.

But the important thing is that you don’t give up. If your goal is important to you, you need to get back on track as soon as possible after a setback.

Eventually, you won’t feel miserable every time you begin a workout, or know you have to exercise that day – it will become second nature, just something you do, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth.

The realisation that you are in total control of your choices – not someone else with a fad diet book to sell – can be incredibly empowering. You can take control of your life and begin to accomplish the things that always seemed impossible to you.

So, I ask again, what’s holding you back?

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  • Mark

    Great article. So many people get hung up on just starting to do SOMETHING. Having very clear and specific goals is critical to knowing what you’re achieving, and the more you achieve the more you want to keep going. A lot of people also fall back to “reward now, pay later” behavior. Anything that instantly gratifies is picked over something you have to invest in and wait for a return. More people should start adopting a “pay now, reward later” attitude. Maybe find something to reward yourself with to keep your spirits up, but the real reward will be months or years down the road.

    • Glad you like it Mark! You’ve hit the nail on the head there.

  • I love the trigger idea. I often think of triggers as being negative, but I’m remembering a positive one now. The first time I heard the song Imma Be by the Black Eyed Peas was toward the end of an intense workout. It allowed me to tap into energy I did not know I had. For the next couple years, whenever I heard it, no matter what I was doing, I had to work out then and there.

    That eventually faded though. I’m going to have to come up with a new one.

    • Hey Lennon!

      That’s really interesting, and is exactly how a cue/trigger works. I think the easiest way of making something into a habit is to do it at the same time every day. So for instance, it could be that you wake up, have a cup of coffee and then do your exercise. Eventually, that cup of coffee will become the trigger, and your body’s circadian rhythm will adjust so that it is most ready for exercise in the mornings.

      Hope that helps!

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