15 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Exercise (especially when you don’t want to!)

We’ve all been there: you know that you need to get to the gym, go for a run, or pop in that P90X DVD but you just can’t get yourself motivated to do it. Why? Because fitness is hard work and sometimes you just can’t convince yourself it’s worth it. Today we’re going to talk about fifteen ways you can motivate yourself to workout even when you don’t want to. From positive self talk to taking away the decision completely, the plan is to get you moving and healthy!

Verbally acknowledge that exercise may be outside of your comfort zone, and that’s okay!

Fear plays a big role in why we don’t want to do things, and exercise is no different. You need to tell yourself that even though a workout may be outside your comfort zone, that it’s still okay to do it! The truth is that as a person, you will see the greatest achievements, the best change, and the most accomplishment when you leave the place where you’re comfortable and start trying things that scare you a little bit.

Never lifted weights? No problem! Learn to do one lift – I recommend the Deadlift – and practice on lower weights until you’re comfortable doing it. This may take a couple weeks and a lot of reps, but you’ll become more competent as you go, and with competence comes comfort. BAM! Now you’re better at lifting. Go do it again, this time with the Overhead Press. Then the Barbell Clean. Then the Front Squat!

Acknowledge that the Comfort Zone is there, and that it’s okay to step outside it to become a stronger, better person. Then freakin’ do it!

Set goals that are realistic and build on one another

Small goals can add up to big goals, and big goals can always be broken down into smaller goals. The smaller the goal, the easier it is to achieve, and that achievement will make it easier to get to the next goal. You can set three types of goals to move you along:

Macro Goal: What is your Big Goal for the next year? This should be something that, with reasonable effort, you can accomplish over the next 12 months.

Meso Goals: What are four Medium Size goals that will lead to your Big Goal? These should take about 3 months to achieve each, and should flow one to the next over the year, culminating in your Big Goal.

Micro Goals: What can you do over the next month to work towards your upcoming Meso Goal? Again, this is an amount of effort that leads directly to making that next Meso Goal a reality. These are Small Goals.

I’ve covered goal setting and achievement before, over at my article 6 Tips for Tracking and Achieving Your Goals. I want to add another goal level to the Macro/Meso/Micro list, and those are…

Mini Goals: What can you do week to week to support your Monthly/Micro Goals? This really gets down to the nitty gritty of planning out your workouts. For instance, if you want to run 12 miles this month, then you need to do 3 miles this week.

With all the levels of goals, be realistic and set concrete ways that you can Measure those goals. If you don’t have a way to measure success, then you can’t really accomplish your goal!

Accept that you may not enjoy it

I hear this excuse all the time: “I want to work out, but it just isn’t always fun!”

I could give you a bunch of Happy-Feely replies, but lets go with the Honest version:

Suck it up, Buttercup! It ain’t gonna lift itself!

Working out is often fun. It’s often one of the best parts of my day. But sometimes? Sometimes it sucks! Sometimes the only thing I want to do in a day is stay home, turn on Netflix, and re-watch the first four seasons of Archer while eating Fig Newtons in my fleece sweat pants.

You know what I actually do, though? Go to the gym and lift something heavy, do a bunch of double unders, jump on the box, row a 5k, and tear up my hands on the pull-up bar.

And you know why? Because 6 months from now my abs are going to look like whatever it is I did today. Whether it’s a Fig Newton-fueled Archer marathon or an unwanted trip to the gym, the six pack I am (or am not!) sporting is a direct result of the choices I make right now.

Make the right choice, especially when it sucks.

Focus on the Reward and not the Work

You make good choices by focusing on what you’re trying to accomplish, and not on how hard it may be to get there. Fitness is a lot of work, and if you have serious goals – get a six pack, lose 20lbs of fat, compete in a body competition – then you will be putting in serious work. The trick is to stop focusing on how hard the thing you’re doing is, and favor focusing on how you’ll feel once you reach the goal itself.

One of my favorite ways of doing this is called Affirmations: you write down your goal as though you have already accomplished it every day, 10-15 times. There are a lot of opinions on why this helps, but in my opinion it’s because you are reminding yourself why you are going the hard work at the times when you need that reminder the most. Sure, on most days you may not need it, but on the days you do need it, you have it. Here’s an example;

Goal: Lose 10% body fat and see visible abdominal muscles

Affirmation: I feel like a Spartan bad-ass when I look in the mirror with my shirt off and see lean, strong abs.

Write the affirmation 10 times per day, by hand, however works for you (pen and paper, notebook, chiseled into a stone slab, whatever). My affirmations tend to be pretty snarky and hardcore, because that’s the kind of motivation I need. For you, it can be whatever it is you need to hear, but make it short, to the point, and concrete.

Commit to what you are doing

Much like affirmations, committing to your goal is a way to tell yourself everyday that you are working hard for a reason. You can commit in many ways, and you need to find the one that works best for you. This may take some trial and error, but finding a commitment strategy is a good way to stay on track. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Tell your significant other about your goals, and the timeline in which you want to accomplish them. With a supportive partner, goals become easier because they encourage you out of love.
  2. Tell Social Media about your goals, and make sure other people are seeing it. Post it on Facebook, send an email to 5-6 friends, post signs on your dorm room door. Whatever. Announce to the public what you are doing, and ask them to hold you accountable.
  3. Write a contract with yourself, committing to accomplishing your goals. Cite your Macro, Meso, and Micro goals in that contract so you know exactly what you need to do to fulfill it. Create a consequence for yourself if you don’t meet your goal, such as donating a certain amount of money to charity or doing something embarrassing like Karaoke night at a crowded bar every week for three months. Have the contract “notarized” by 3 supportive friends who will make you stick to it.

However you commit, do it completely!

Look for inspiration

Quotes, pictures, stories, books, articles, art, music, movies, TV shows, plays, cat gifs.

Print quotes that rev you up and tape them to your bathroom mirror. Play music that makes you feel awesome when you workout or on the way to work. Set your computer/phone/tablet background to an inspiring image. Read a novel (or listen to it on tape) that makes you want to be a better You. Read stories about people who made amazing fitness transformations, that make you feel like you could do the same thing.

Whatever inspires you to work towards your goal, use it!

Get excited about your goals

Now that you’re inspired and have your goals, get excited! You have this awesome thing that you are totally going to accomplish. All you need to do is put in a little work day to day, and you’re Awesomeness Level is going to be over 9000! (Bonus points if you get that reference without Googling it)

Making big changes and striving for big goals can elicit fear, but what you choose to do with that fear is what matters. If you take it as the Fight or Flight response, then giving up is Flight while getting excited is Fight. For your goals, you always need to Fight.

My favorite way? Saying, “Let’s Do This!” before a workout.

Plan and Schedule your workout

Tight schedules can be a killer, but you don’t need as much time to exercise as you think. You can get a solid cardio workout in 20-30 minutes, and you can get resistance training done in the same amount of time if you plan it right. You need to know two things to make this happen:

What are you supposed to do that day?

You need to know what you’re aiming for, and your day to day goals are informed by the Macro/etc. goals we talked about before. If you need to run 3 miles this week and you have three days to workout, then you know you need to run 1 mile in every workout session. If you can run more, that’s bonus work! The same goes for weight training: set a plan for the week and break it down by day.

How much time do you have to make it happen?

Now that we know the What, we need to know the When. You can break exercise down into chunks throughout the day based on the time you have to get it done. Sure, maybe you can’t fit an hour of cardio and weight lifting into one session, but could you do it if you did cardio in the morning and weight lifting in the afternoon? Splitting your workouts to adhere to the time you have doesn’t have to be rocket science: choose a logical split in your routine, and do it a little more spaced out in the day.

Once you know What and When, you need to actually schedule the workout time into your day, and stick with it. If there is no Immediately More Important Thing That Cannot Be Done Later on your plate, then suck it up and go workout. It doesn’t matter if you want to, you have it on your calendar and it needs to happen.

If something else does come up that you Need to do, then workout as soon as humanly possible after you finish the Important Thing.

Be flexible, accept mistakes, & don’t expect perfection

Things are going to go wrong, there’s nothing you can really do about that in the grand scheme of things. Work may run long, the gym may close, the power may go out while cooking dinner. Whatever happens, whether it’s your fault or not, you have to run with it and move on. You are, by your human nature, an imperfect being. That’s okay. It’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. You need to accept that fact, do your best not to screw up when you can control it, and figure out how to deal with things when they go wrong.

No power and can’t cook dinner? Go out and get a salad from the grocery store.

Gym closed because the pool burst and flooded the building? Do body weight movements at home or outside.

Aliens invading? Running is good cardio

Don’t worry about stuff when it happens, just come up with a Plan B and work with it.

Be nice to yourself, but don’t let yourself off the hook

You need to be nice to yourself, because chances are a lot of other people won’t be. Don’t beat yourself up when you make a mistake, and drown out negative thoughts with positive ones. Use inspiring quotes to motivate you to be better, or make a list of things you like about yourself to read when you feel down. Just as helpful is making a list of compliments other people give you and reading those when you need a little boost.

At the same time, don’t be too nice to yourself either. Telling yourself, “it’s okay that I messed up” is fine as long as you follow-up with commitment to be better in the future and you don’t let it bleed into another area. Don’t ever tell yourself, “I messed up my diet with lunch, which is fine, so I’ll just eat whatever I want for dinner and try again tomorrow!”

No. You’ll have a healthy dinner, because that’s what you need. Be nice about lunch, but don’t compromise on dinner.

Stop running on the “Failure Treadmill”

This one is quick, and I’m going to say it so you really can’t miss the point:

Failing to meet one goal (i.e. going to the gym on Tuesday) is never an excuse to fail at another goal (i.e. eating a healthy lunch on Tuesday).

Do not use one misstep to justify another, or you will keep failing in an endless cycle of Suck.

Don’t keep running on the Failure Treadmill of Constant Suck. Get off that stupid thing and start being awesome.

Use a support network to stay on track

We talked about support networks back in the commitment section, but it bears repeating: find someone that will help push you to achieve your goals even when you don’t want to be pushed.

I often see others say this should be your spouse/significant other, but sometimes that doesn’t always work. Your partner should be supportive and you should be telling them your goals; that’s the nature of a partnership with another person. But there are also times when they won’t be able to push you the way you need without feelings being hurt on one or both sides of the situation. We tend to take criticism more personally from our partners than we do from another person with whom we aren’t as emotionally involved, even if that criticism is exactly the same!

My recommendation is to use both your significant other (for positive support) and a good friend/training buddy when you need the tough stuff. You can expand this to include family, other friends, other gym members, and online communities. As long as you have people who genuinely want to see you do well, that’s what you need in a support network.

Remember that slow progress is still progress

I’m going to blow the lid on the whole American Health Market right here, right now. Ready?

There is no magic pill to make you lose weight, gain muscle, look like Gerard Butler in 300 or Olivia Wilde in anything she’s ever done, or improve whatever body part you’re most sensitive about.

Boom! Is your mind blown? I knew it would…what, it isn’t? Well okay then. Carry on.

No Magic Pill means the only way to get what you want is work, and work takes time. When it comes to making progress towards your goals, remember that every rep, every set, every workout, every good week, every Micro Goal, and every Meso Goal are all leading up to the Macro Goal you set earlier. It’s going to feel slow, and sometimes like you stall because it’s slower than you thought it would be. But every single time you make the smallest stride in the right direction, you’ve won a little something that you didn’t have before.

Get away from the idea of instant (or even FedEx-level) gratification. The path is going to be long and fraught with peril. Put on some Ass Kickin’ Boots (or Nikes, whatever) and walk it anyway.

Finish what you start

This really can’t be made more complicated: if you finish a small goal, you’re more likely to finish the next one, and the one after that, and so on until your getting your bigger goals finished too. Don’t give up, and you’ll get there. Get into the habit of not stopping until you finish what you start. Begin with small things: finish that rep, finish the set, and finish the workout. Move on to finish the week of workouts. Now finish the month. See the pattern here? When you consistently finish even the smallest things without compromise, it all adds up to getting what you want in the end.

Acknowledge when you accomplish a goal

Lastly, don’t down-play your accomplishments. Not ever. You need to be proud of the effort you are putting in day to day, week to week, month to month, and year to year. Don’t expect a parade when you finish a workout, but at the same time acknowledge to yourself (or Facebook, Twitter, your mom) that you did something today that made you better than yesterday. Appreciate your own efforts, so that you are compelled to give more in the future. When you are consistently proud of yourself for doing things that are good for you, you build up a well of self-esteem that will help you through hard times later on. Don’t let the well run dry, when it’s so easy to fill with small things.