There's a totally legit reason you always seem to fall off the workout wagon: The conventional approach to exercise almost forces you to bail out. So we asked experts who specialize in the science of motivation to explain how to keep your butt in gear. As it happens, just a few simple behavioral tweaks can silence the call of the couch.
Why We Quit (And The One Thing That Can Keep Us Going)
Research shows that 50 percent of people who start a new workout program drop out within six months. That's because the most common reasons given for exercisingÃ¢â‚¬”"My boyfriend says I should lose five pounds"; "My doctor keeps bugging me about it"Ã¢â‚¬”have very little to do with you, says Edward Deci, Ph. D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, who has studied motivation for decades. In fact, working out to make others happy is the least successful way to compel you to break a sweat. One study found that people who signed up for exercise classes because they wanted to feel good were more likely to attend than those who did it to look good.
Curing the motivation problem is at the crux of a theory developed by Deci and his colleagues called Self Determination Theory (SDT ). It boils down to this: The more you do stuff you like to do and not what you think you should do, the more you'll keep doing it. The benefits of this intrinsic motivation have been proven in studies across the board, from education to health care to parenting. In exercise research, intrinsically motivated exercisers were more likely than those who were nagged by friends or family to continue working out for six months or more.
Experts say these three subtle shifts in your outlook can keep you on track, here are their fitness tips:
Step 1: Take charge
Appoint yourself CEO of your fitness decisions. Don't let well-meaning friends (or mothers or spouses) force you into another gym membership you won't use. Psychologists call this autonomy, and it's one thing you must develop if you want to harness intrinsic motivation. "People who feel as if they're making their own decisions report feeling higher levels of self-worth," says Philip Wilson, Ph. D., an associate professor of psychology at Brock University in Ontario who studies SDT and exercise. "And that leaves them feeling more motivated."
How do you take the wheel? Start by asking yourself why you want to exercise at all. If the answer is that your boyfriend casually dropped the phrase "muffin top" when you were jeans shopping, your efforts are probably doomed. But if you decide to get fit because you want to feel stronger or healthier, you're more likely to be successful, because the end result means something to you.
Next, find a form of exercise you enjoy so much you'd do it even if it weren't good for you. If the mellow vibe of Hatha yoga brings you bliss, light up some incense and roll out a mat. If slamming a tennis ball is more your thing, join a league or sign up for lessons. Perhaps most important: If you truly despise running on the treadmill (or doing crunches or taking spin class), don't! If you're invested in what you're doing, your performance will improveÃ¢â‚¬”and that will feed your desire to go back for more.
If you honestly can't equate exercise with fun, flex your take-charge muscle by setting specific personal goals. Working your way up to three no-cheating-allowed pullups? Finishing your first 5-K? Whatever your goal, it can help you stay motivated for the short term and the long.
"People thrive on feedback, and having goals provides that," says WH contributor Rachel Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness, a Santa Clarita, California-based gym. Eighty percent of the clients there renew their memberships every yearÃ¢â‚¬” double the industry standard.
Cosgrove helps clients create meaningful goals by getting them to focus on tangible accomplishments, like completing an hour-long workout twice a week, doing five pullups or 10 pushups. At the same time, she discourages them from stepping on the scale.
"Goals should be based on feeling goodÃ¢â‚¬”that's what keeps people coming back to the gym," she says. Deci's research supports Cosgrove's approach. Physical accomplishments give you positive feelings about yourself and increase motivation because they're intrinsic; looking for validation via external motivators, like the scale parked in your bathroom, does not.
Step 2: Give yourself props for progress
How many times have you said to yourself during a workout, "I'm getting nowhere"? Nothing evaporates motivation faster than feeling like you're not making any noticeable improvement.
The problem: When it comes to working out, women are notorious for seeking a comfort zone. Once we master a new skill (like holding plank position for 60 seconds or running at a 10-minute mile pace), we stick with it because, hey, we know we can do it. But it also impedes progress and breeds big-time boredom.
"The less interesting something is, the less motivated we are," Wilson says. Some of his earliest SDT studies showed that humans have a basic need to feel engagedÃ¢â‚¬”take away the novelty, and motivation vanishes. And Groundhog Day-style monotony isn't just bad for your head; eventually your muscles stop responding and you really hit a wall.
The solutions: Mixing things up and pushing yourself. "Changing the intensity and type of exercise trains the muscles differently, and you'll start to see improvements more quickly," Wilson says. For example, increase the weight you're lifting and the number of reps and sets by 10 percent every week. The same goes for your cardioÃ¢â‚¬”increase the amount in 10 percent increments each week. Do this for three weeks, and then drop back down to where you started on week four to let your body rest, Cosgrove says.
Next, write everything down. A workout log functions not only as an exercise checklist but as a concrete record of how far you've comeÃ¢â‚¬”a way to motivate yourself if you become frustrated. In researcher-speak, this is called establishing competence, and it's at the core of the second step in fueling motivation that lasts. To make it work, keep the focus on what you can do, rather than what you can't, Wilson says. And don't compare yourself to anyone else. Once you start focusing on you, your confidence will grow and ignite a cycle of positive reinforcement that will keep you hooked.
Step 3: Make it social
Besides the dirty martinis, there's a reason you go to happy hour every week. You get to socialize, laugh, and hang with friends. It makes you feel connected. According to the principles of SDT, making your workouts more like happy hour will put you well on your way to stoking your inner motivator.
Start by finding like-minded workout buddies. A study by Canadian researchers found that a congenial atmosphere, rather than a competitive one, helps people stay motivated by providing a source of encouragement. In Cosgrove's gym, clients work out in small groups of three to five people with similar fitness goals. "The group provides built-in support, and it's way more fun than working out alone," Cosgrove says. Members push each other to reach goals and cheer each other on. And when someone has a bad day, the group is there to lift spirits and sympathize.
If you go to a gym, get to know a few trainersÃ¢â‚¬”even if your relationship is limited to their giving you pointers on form. If you don't love gyms, Wilson recommends hooking up with a friend with a similar fitness level or searching the message boards of local leagues or clubs to find people who share your definition of fun. If you're a lone ranger at heart, don't sweat it. Just focus more on taking charge of your fitness and feeling good about your progress, Wilson says.
The ability to stick to a workoutÃ¢â‚¬”and get the body that makes you happyÃ¢â‚¬”isn't the sole domain of professional athletes and Type A exercisers. You already have what you need within you: It's just a matter of tweaking your perspective so you can tap into what really gets you going.