Sometimes you wake up ready to hit the weight rack; other times, you can barely muster the energy to find your phone and hit the snooze button.
Find yourself wondering where to start when it comes to how to improve exercise motivation? Motivation can be fickle—but when it falters, defining your “why” can help you get closer to crushing your goals. Haley Perlus, PhD, a sports and performance psychologist based in Vail, Colorado, suggests starting by asking yourself a few questions about why you want to get (or stay) fit: Is it to improve your health numbers? To be able to keep up with your kids or pets? Or maybe it’s because you want to hit your Streak and earn unlimited 5% cash back¹ on eligible Health & Wellness purchases like fitness classes and personal training sessions with the Paceline Card. Whatever it is, defining clear reasons makes it that much easier to set attainable goals (and achieve them).
Here, sports psychologists and therapists share their other go-to’s for how to improve exercise motivation. Read on for the latest mental tricks to help you stick with working out—no matter where you are in your fitness journey.
1. Start small
In the early stages of your new fitness regimen, you might feel like you’ll stick to it forever. But setting super lofty goals isn’t going to get you far. In fact, it may just result in frustration (and ultimately throwing in the towel on your workout plan). A 2021 study in Health Psychology found that people achieved their step goals when those goals were just a bit higher than their usual step counts, rather than trying to reach more daunting numbers.
“It’s better for your goal to be 99.9% achievable and then built upon rather than something that you are only 50% likely to do and never progress,” says New York City-based psychotherapist and personal trainer Evan Lawrence, LMHC, CPT, RYT200.
2. Make a contract with yourself
Write out a contract (like you would an exercise program) that you’ll commit to [insert your favorite workout here] however many times a week, Perlus suggests. When you don’t live up to it, you owe yourself something—anything within reason that is going to hold you accountable. (For instance, you might have to vacuum your whole place when you don’t uphold the contract.) Why? We all make silent promises to ourselves. Putting something on paper makes it more real.
3. Leverage “response cost”
If you don’t trust yourself to abide by your contract, enlist a friend or family member to keep you accountable.
“I essentially use one tip with any patient that needs to acquire the ability to stick to things: an effective behavioral tool called ‘response cost,'” says Tom Ferraro, PhD, a sports psychologist based in Williston Park, New York.
“You simply agree to enter into a contract with your significant other, friend, or family member and explain that you’re on a one-year quest to exercise,” he explains. Make sure the contract establishes all the parameters, including the number of days per week you aim to exercise and the length of time you’ll work out. Sure, you can still skip the gym, but you’ll incur a penalty: For instance, you might keep a $5 bill posted on the fridge to give to your accountability buddy if you choose not to exercise one day. That’s why this method is called “response cost,” because you take on a cost when you engage in maladaptive behavior.
4. Find a fitness group to connect with in real life
At-home workouts can be great, but nothing beats the rush of an in-person bootcamp class or meeting your friends at the gym for leg day. That’s why Perlus suggests seeking out a good workout buddy. “Surround yourself with people who are at your fitness level and are supportive and elevating,” Perlus says. “Not only will you make new friends, but the support will help you to keep challenging yourself.”
An older study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that 95% of people completed their weight-loss program when they did it with a group—versus only 76% who finished the program when they went at it alone.
“Although [your workout buddies] are not there to police you, they will notice when you are a no-show—and you are all in it together,” Perlus says.
5. Bribe yourself
If looking stronger and feeling like your best self doesn’t quite cut it, it might be time to resort to self-bribery. After a few weeks of logged physical activity, treat yourself to a massage, a new workout fit or anything else. (And don’t forget: You unlock rewards in the Paceline app every time you hit your Streak.)
“The appeal of a reward gives the brain something to loop into and makes the positive connection between the behavior (fitness) and the reward,” Perlus says. Over time, the brain becomes accustomed to the idea that the means justified the end—and that’s when the habit sticks, Perlus says.
Bonus points if you reward yourself extra when you make it to the gym after missing a session. A December 2021 mega-study of more than 60,000 people in Nature found that rewarding yourself for returning to the gym after a missed workout helps you go to the gym more often overall.
6. Consider keeping your fitness goal flexible
Experts often advise being super-specific when it comes to setting goals, but here’s the case for staying flexible: Your schedule isn’t going to be identical every week, and giving yourself grace might go a long way.
“Research shows that it’s better to say ‘I’ll work out three days a week’ and then sort out the details instead of saying ‘I’ll work out Monday, Wednesday and Friday,'” Lawrence says. Indeed, a 2020 study in Management Science found that people who committed to going to the gym at a specific time and then missed their workout didn’t end up going at all, whereas folks who were given the option to go at any time ended up logging more weekly workouts.
7. Go easy on yourself
Both the Nature and Management Science studies reinforce that staying flexible—and rewarding yourself for it—can result in greater success in the long run.
“Change is a process. It has successes and failures. Recognize that. Remind yourself of that,” Lawrence says. “It doesn’t have to be perfect—just trending upward.”
7 Ways To Amp Up Your Exercise Motivation is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as financial advice.