Choose Joy, Be Realistic and 7 Other Tips to Get Motivated for Exercise

Medically reviewed in July 2018

We all know that it can be hard to get motivated to exercise. Some of us feel we have too many other things to do. Some of us feel incompetent–too uncoordinated, too out of shape, too round. But did you know that if you find your own reasons to exercise, you’ll be more likely to get started and stick with a routine? A 2012 review of 66 studies about exercise motivation published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that self-determination is the key to fitness success.

You’re reading this, a doctor may have advised you (or someone you love) that exercise fights heart disease. The pressure is on. You need to save your heart. Yes, it’s true, we all should exercise. But other people’s voices saying should can spark resistance or a sense of inadequacy. So try doing some soul searching to find out what motivates you to move. Here are some important ways that I’ve seen help people get to where they need to go.

Choose Joy
As Dr. Ornish likes to say, “Fear of dying isn’t sustainable, joy of living is.” In my 25 years as a personal trainer, I’ve seen that gratitude for life and the ability to move is energizing. Your mind and emotions are deeply involved. Gratitude will help you move through the excuses. Exercise feeds–and feeds on–joy.

Identify More than One Motivation
Joy is the way. Along the way, it helps many people to pick not one, but two or three benefits they most hope to gain from a fitness program. A conversation with a buddy or partner or any good listener may help. In a 2014 study of middle-aged women published in BMC Women’s Health, researchers noted that women were much more likely to exercise if they understood that they would feel happier and good about themselves after an exercise session. Do you crave relief from bad moods or depression? Do you want to live longer? Look better? Stay independent? Be able to babysit active kids? Go on hikes uphill? Vacation in higher altitudes? Find multiple reasons to exercise and you’ll end your couch-potato days.

Be Realistic
Try to set reasonable short-term benchmarks on the path to fulfill your motivations. You need to believe—without being pie-in-the-sky–that you are capable of fulfilling your personal exercise prescription. Aim small, take small steps and eventually you’ll be doing more than you might imagine now. Aim too high and you make it harder to succeed.

Find Your Sweet Spot
You might need to try more than one time of day, location or type of activity to find the program you can maintain. If gyms bore you, bike outdoors. If you thrive on friendly rivalry, take a cycling class. Explore your options and build in some variety in response to the seasons and to exercise different parts of your body. Once you know the exercise you enjoy, you’ll be consistent without great effort.

Adopt a Meditation Practice
The best athletes use meditation and other mental exercises to clarify their goals, strengthen their resolve and tame any inner demons. There’s no harm in using props to stay focused—ideally strategies that have helped you achieve other goals. I personally love post-it notes on desks, computers and in the kitchen! It may help to keep your fitness gear visible in your home, keep a gym bag in the car or log your workouts. Anything you can do to keep fitness in the front of your mind will help.

Share Your Goals
Find a buddy who will encourage you and hold you accountable, whether at the gym or at home. Family, friends and workout partners can keep you on schedule, challenge you to push yourself and celebrate successes.

Love Your Body
We think of “fitness” as aerobics, strength training and stretching. But taking care of your body—and in fact, being “fit”–also means getting enough sleep, eating healthily and managing your stress. Ornish Lifestyle Medicine makes it easy by giving you a community dedicated to all aspects of health.

Once you know your motivations, set up a do-able, pleasurable routine. Start by clearing your mind with a meditation practice and you’ll find patience come more easily. You might set a goal of losing 20 lbs. in 20 weeks, and also improving your mood and building up your heart so you can hike up a local mountain. If the weight loss doesn’t come on schedule, but you’re fitter and you wake up happy each morning, you’ll be less upset about losing 10 pounds rather than 20. Disappointments can roll off you like a drop of sweat. The key is doing it all for yourself. The exercise to save your heart will come from your heart.

Want to start exercising, but not sure how to start? Read The Foundation of a Successful Exercise Program.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

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