How to motivate yourself to keep up an exercise regime

When it comes to working out, it’s often said that getting started is the hardest part, but what about sticking with it? For the first few days or weeks, when motivation levels are high, you might be flying along, but when the honeymoon phase starts to wear off, you could find yourself flagging. Eloise Skinner, a London-based psychotherapist and fitness instructor, and Ritika Sun Birah, consultant counselling psychologist registered with the Health & Care Professions Council, offer advice on how to keep yourself motivated.

WORDS: Vartika Puranik

How you can find exercise motivation in repetition

Physical training can feel daunting if it means stepping out of your comfort zone. ‘It can be hard to force ourselves into uncomfortable situations in pursuit of a future good feeling that can feel quite far off,’ says Eloise. In addition, anything new might feel intimidating, and the excuses not to do something are often just the brain’s way of keeping you safe from something you’re not used to. The more you’re able to understand that and overcome it, the more consistent you can become. And the best way to train the mind not to fear exercise is by doing it over and over again. Eventually, this signals to your brain to find it motivating, making it easier to be consistent and helping you to enjoy exercise.

What are the physical and mental benefits of exercise?

A quick rundown of the benefits can be a good starting point for recommitting to a fitness routine. Physical activity is protective to the health of both brain and body. Regular exercise can improve problem-solving skills and boost feel-good endorphin levels. While small in size, a randomised clinical trial involving 132 people aged between 20 and 67 showed that aerobics improved cognitive ability. Working out can also lift mood, boost self-esteem, lower the risk of chronic conditions and improve resilience to illnesses such as coronary heart disease, cancer and depression.

Exercise also promotes neurogenesis, the process by which new brain cells are produced that are more receptive to fresh patterns of firing, making it easier to establish routines.

This creates a positive knock-on effect, where the more you work out consistently, the easier it gets. ‘Once the routine becomes automated, it becomes much easier to rely on habitual behaviour rather than having to deliberately focus on carrying out the action or task every time,’ says Eloise.

Of course, the mind’s defences against discomfort and change are such that knowing why something’s good for you doesn’t always translate into doing that thing regularly. So, if you’re struggling to consistently train your body, it might be worth training your mind first in order to keep on track.

How to make your mind more receptive to working out

Keep the self-talk kind. Launching your fitness journey with thoughts such as ‘I’m never going to achieve my goals’ or ‘I don’t have what they have, so it’s impossible for me to stay fit’ can set you on the path of inconsistency. The trick is to remain neutral, so your goal feels approachable, and to cut yourself some slack if you have to miss a session.

Ritika says: ‘External blame serves as a defence mechanism. I would encourage shifting focus from barriers to possibilities which can foster a proactive mindset.’ And, if your usual routine is a no-no for a week, you could try movement snacking instead – short bursts of two to 10 minutes of exercise, be that walking, squats or star jumps.

Find your ‘why’. It’s a good idea to ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Your reason can act as a gentle nudge to help keep up with your workouts when you miss days. It’s useful to find extra incentives other than the fitness benefits – maybe it’s also a creative outlet or there might be a mindful dimension. ‘Reframe exercise as a positive experience,’ says Ritika. ‘I often tell myself that working out is a gift I am giving myself. I use this on the days my motivation is lacking.’ What matters is to make sure that you’re doing it for yourself.

Be flexible. Don’t get fixated on a specific day or time if it’s not helping. For some people, booking in a set time for their workout regime helps with consistency, but for others it’s a hindrance. Either it becomes monotonous and the excitement of the initial phase turns into dread and apprehension or the schedule acts as a barrier, making you feel like a failure if you miss the designated slot. When something is practical and adaptable, it’s much easier to keep going as it takes the pressure off.

Why it’s important to choose an exercise regime that suits you

Switch your setting. Test different locations and try indoor and outdoor options. Inconsistency might be a sign that you don’t feel comfortable in the gym or that bad weather is making outdoor runs or boot-camp sessions less appealing. The right spot for a yoga session, for example, could be your balcony, a park or your living room. And online workouts can be taken anywhere. Swapping places occasionally can also be stimulating and reduce the chances of boredom.

Choose an activity you enjoy. One study looking at exercise adherence found that people dropped out because the allotted exercises weren’t enjoyable to them. Picking a workout you genuinely love might take trial and error, but once you find out which one is both effective and gratifying to you, sticking at it becomes easier. ‘Don’t be afraid to switch up your routine or activities if it starts to feel like a burden,’ says Eloise.

Start small. One way to stave off the post-honeymoon crash is to gradually increase your efforts. Trying to reach level five of a fitness regime without mastering the first four steps is likely to lead to burnout, disappointment and demotivation. This could mean aiming to work out three days a week instead of five or starting with 10 or 15 minutes per session. It’s as valuable not to overestimate yourself as it is not to underestimate your ability.

How self-belief and a support network can aid your motivation

Be in the moment. Visualisation is good, but hanging on to an image of your future self isn’t always the most constructive approach. It can make it more challenging to appreciate feeling better in yourself. It might also make the process less enjoyable. Reframing your aims to be about managing to complete today’s session means you’re less stressed about your big goal but are able to benefit from the smaller steps. Ritika says: ‘Focusing on the present aids workout consistency by minimising overwhelm. Stay mindful during exercise for a more enjoyable experience.’

Find a friend. Hold yourself accountable by different means. You could try keeping a tracker to chart your progress or think about how you’ll reward yourself. If you’re struggling with self-motivation, an accountability partner or exercise pal might help.

Know you’re not alone. It gets easier to keep going when you understand that everyone struggles, and it’s not a sign of weakness but a natural mode of self-defence. ‘This type of procrastination, where we put off an immediate task or delay an action until a future event, is often designed to relieve an immediate sense of discomfort,’ says Eloise. Even fitness trainers have their own struggles, with many going through the same thought patterns as you might be right now. This also means choosing the optimum role models, whether virtual or in-person, so you can deal with issues pragmatically.

Remember you’re always improving. When you feel your fitness has regressed to the stage you started at, it’s hard to keep going, but you always learn new things every time you return to your exercise track – you’re never back at square one. Cultivating this mindset can gradually make you consistent because you understand that no matter how many false starts it takes, you’re always coming back better.


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You can read more articles about fitness and positive thinking in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.