In the 10 years I’ve been helping people develop healthy behaviors around food and exercise, I’ve found that most people truly want to exercise more to improve their health and fitness; however, as with diet, knowing what to do and actually doing it are two very different things.
I’ve learned that addressing the psychology behind why people don’t exercise as often as they know they should usually does the trick. Here are some tips that have helped my clients make their workouts actually happen:
1. Start small.
Too many people go from doing nothing to exercising for hours per day… only to burn out weeks later. If your workout feels daunting, it’s easier to skip out on it, so make the exercise doable. I’ve had many clients who would only exercise if they could run a full five miles or bike for an hour. One client scorned exercise unless she was training for a marathon, so she never exercised. But the 10-minute workout we actually do is always better than the “perfect” workout we never do; something is always better than nothing.
2. Follow the 10-minute rule.
The hardest part about exercising is starting, and the easiest way to get started is to commit to less up front. This approach makes taking that first step less daunting. If you’re 10 minutes in and want to stop, you can, but the momentum and good feelings usually take over, and you end up following through.
A before-and-after photo of Rebecca, a MyBodyTutor client who says, “My goal was to live a life where I was at my personal best. That has been achieved, and I lost weight as well.”
3. Pair exercise with something else.
Save your favorite podcast for when you exercise, or only allow yourself to watch your favorite show or listen to your favorite album when you’re on the treadmill. You might find yourself exercising just to listen to music, your favorite podcast, or to watch your favorite show.
4. Never waste a shower.
Use a shower as a reward for exercising. Since you shower every day, you’ll exercise every day. The positive reinforcement also helps train your mind to enjoy the experience of working out.
5. Don’t push to exhaustion.
I always recommend you stop exercising before you’re absolutely exhausted. Even if it’s something you enjoy, stop when you’re feeling good. You’re more likely to want to do it again.
6. Access the power of Mondays.
Exercising on a Monday sets the tone and psychological pattern for the week. If you skip exercising on Monday, it’s much easier to skip exercising on Tuesday, which can quickly become, “Well, I already missed a day. I’ll start fresh on Monday!” Momentum can work for you, but it will also work against you… if you let it.
7. Have fun.
Most of our clients approach exercise as something they should do, instead of something they want to do. In working with them, I’ve realized that the best exercise (and diet) plan is one you can stick to. To take the pressure off, we recommend our clients try different things until they find something they really like. Explore your way through walking, running, cycling, swimming, yoga, Pilates, lifting weights, kickboxing, etc. Allow yourself to do more of what you like and less of what you don’t. Before long, you’ll find yourself looking forward to the fun.
8. Honor your commitment to “you time.”
Schedule your workouts for a time that’s convenient, and don’t give in to the temptation of filling that time up with anything else. I’m always asked about the best time to exercise, and my answer is that it depends on what’s most realistic given your schedule. If you’re not a morning person, trying to exercise in the morning is setting yourself up for failure. You’re asking yourself to do two new things: Wake up early and exercise. Instead, make it easier on yourself: Could you exercise during lunch or on the way home?
“I know I’ll be able to easily maintain this for life,” Angelo says. “There’s no going back.”
9. Opt for the do-nothing strategy.
If you’ve scheduled time to work out but choose to skip exercise, you’re often rewarding yourself with an activity you enjoy, like scrolling through your Instagram feed or watching a show you like. This only serves to reinforce negative behavior. Instead, do nothing. When the choice is to sit and literally do nothing or exercise, exercise almost always wins out.
10. Identify the real problem.
Is it the guys grunting in the weight-training area that turn you off from weight lifting? Try going to the gym during an off hour. Are you scared of looking clueless in the gym? A session or two with a personal trainer who can show you the ropes will make you feel confident in your abilities.
11. Follow the “one day” rule.
You can skip a day of exercise, but never two days in a row. If you do, it becomes much harder to get back in a groove. Doing even a little something—like marching in place for 30 seconds after brushing your teeth—can make a difference. Don’t go two days without doing something.
12. Don’t exercise to lose weight, exercise to destress.
Trainers hate this (unless they’re being really honest), but it’s the truth: Eighty percent of weight loss is diet. It’s about what, why, and how we eat. You know how some people can work their butts off in the gym month after month—even with a trainer—and don’t end up looking any different? You can’t out-exercise a poor diet; exercise is great, but what you do between workouts matters most.
Instead, think of exercise as the most reliable way to destress. Eating suppresses stress; exercise actually reduces it. There’s a big difference. Exercise is the key to energy, mobility, and happiness; it’s critically important for health; and can make the difference between a good day and a great day. We might not always feel like exercising… but we’re always glad we did.