This is how good intentions start: A new gym membership or studio pass, new exercise clothes and a full schedule of classes to try.
You’re ready to be a better person who exercises regularly — for health, for looks, for whatever. But old habits die hard. Even though the first few weeks or months go as planned, life eventually gets in the way. A few occasional happy hours, a couple of late nights at the office, and all of a sudden you realize that you haven’t exercised in weeks. Sound familiar? You’re not alone.
About four out of five gym memberships go unused, save for attendance bumps around the New Year (or, y’know, now, as summer beach time looms). And that has a major effect: 80 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of exercise, which is 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.
While it’s obvious from the popularity of gyms, fitness apps and yoga pants that we all want to get fit, it doesn’t quite happen. But why?
We may be thinking about exercise in the most negative and de-motivating way possible, according to motivation scientist Michelle Segar, author of the book No Sweat: How The Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You A Lifetime of Fitness and director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center (SHARP) at the University of Michigan. She says that we get caught up in all the long-term reasons that we should be exercising, which transforms what should be a “gift” into an obligation that makes us feel guilty if we don’t fulfill it.
Instead, to make a fitness goal and keep it, the trick is to appreciate physical activity for the immediate rewards it can give us, and to take note of how those rewards fuel other parts of our life on a day-to-day basis. Here are four steps you can take, based on Segar’s research, to finally make a fitness goal that you can stick to for life:
1. Reframe the reasons you want to exercise.
Action step: Think about the immediate rewards you feel from being physically active.
There are so many important reasons to be physically active: long life, less disease, a healthy body weight. But these long-term motivations just aren’t motivating, Segar explains. In fact, they actually contaminate the way we think about exercise and transform it from an essential, life-giving activity to guilt-inducing punishment.
“We need to re-conceptualize physical activity away from a chore, and away from abstract future reasons, to the immediate reasons that actually fuel us,” Segar concluded. “Because exercise has been so contaminated, especially by weight loss, when people do it they experience it as punishing and they do it in punishing ways.”
Instead of long-term goals like, “I don’t want to get diabetes” or “I want to lose 10 pounds for the reunion,” the best way to motivate yourself for exercise is to think of the immediate rewards that happen either during or right after the activity. These could be a feeling of accomplishment, having more energy, feeling happier, taking time to connect with a friend or carving out time to escape from life’s daily stressors.
To put it another way, regular exercises claim that they do it for better health. But when asked what motivates them to get up in the morning and run before the sun is up, they say that if they don’t do it, they feel terrible for the rest of the day. Avoiding that horrible feeling, Segar says, is their real motivation for exercising regularly — not some vague hope of “getting healthy.”
2. Determine your favorite physical activity — even if it doesn’t seem like “exercise.”
Action step: Be honest about which exercises leave you feeling hurt, exhausted and resentful. Then brainstorm physical activities that you genuinely like.
Research that shows people who exercise in order to achieve a certain outcome, like weight loss or body sculpting, exercise less, enjoy their workouts less and feel more stress about exercise than those who are motivated by the physical activity itself.
“When people use physical activity as a body sculpting tool, the logical thing to do is to exercise hard, because you want to burn as many calories as possible,” Segar explains. “But in general, people’s displeasure goes up when they exercise at high intensities, and secondly, when people exercise out of obligation, it turns the activity into a depleting experience.”
That’s why it’s important to expand your notion of what exercise is “supposed” to look like and realize that it’s really just sustained physical activity at a moderate intensity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s long list of moderate activities include unexpected things like gardening, grooming a horse, walking the dog, singing and dancing in church, housework, playing with kids, hand washing and waxing a car and skateboarding. These are in addition to all the usual suspects, like walking, swimming, dancing and yoga. Doing things you like will help transform exercise from a punishment into a gift that can fuel you to do the things you care about most, Segar concluded.
3. Give yourself permission to prioritize your well-being.
Action step: Ask your friends and family to support your efforts to take care of yourself.
People need to give themselves permission to think of self-care as an essential part of life, that should be prioritized and negotiated for just as we juggle meal times, time for work and time with friends and family. Self-care could include anything from better sleep to physical activity to eating well to any other activity that makes you feel happy and healthy.
While it sounds good in theory, in practice this could mean some hard conversations are in your future. Could your partner make an effort to cook dinner twice a week so that you can go to your dance class? Could you walk with your child to her playdate instead of dropping her off in the car? Could your weekly happy hour with friends become a weekly hike?
“The next part of permission is to realize you won’t have that extra time to sleep or exercise if you don’t redistribute the work at your house or office,” Segar said. “Ask people to understand that if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else is going to.”
It’s easier said than done, but once you start to prioritize your own well-being regularly, you’ll realize that you will actually have more energy and care to give to your loved ones, Segar writes in her book.
4. Let go of perfectionism
Action step: Write out a “continuum of success” that includes several activities for the week. After the week is over, sit down and evaluate how it went, and then think of strategies to try to improve for next time.
So you’ve got your list of physical activities, you’ve given yourself permission to prioritize them and you’ve negotiated time in your schedule. But what happens when you get to the end of the week and you realize that you’ve only done one of the three things you had originally planned to do?
Think of your goals along a continuum of success instead of trying to hit a single bullseye, says Segar. Let yourself know that doing one of the three planned activities was a success, instead of going for an all-or-nothing approach. It’s a more realistic and productive way of approaching exercise, and it will help you evaluate your progress in a non-judgmental, self-compassionate way.
“Don’t judge yourself when you don’t do something,” she said. “Think about why you didn’t do it, and then come up with a strategy for next time.”
Divorcing exercise from its long-term health benefits is, counterintuitively, the best way to motivate ourselves to prioritize physical activity. The sooner we can reprogram the way we think about exercise, the easier it will be to make room for fun physical activity in our daily lives.