How can I stay motivated to be physically active over time?

Keeping your motivation to exercise can be difficult but there are a couple of things that can help you to be successful. Don't start off doing too much. For example, going from zero workouts to 60 minute workouts, 6 days a week is probably a little unrealistic. When you start off doing too much too soon you set yourself up for (fatigue and) failure. The feeling of failure leads to dropping out of exercise. It feeds into people's self fulfilling prophecy that they 'can't do it' so 'why should they even bother trying'. Try being realistic. You will be able to see and feel success which will build confidence to continue.  

It's also helpful to engage in activities you love or at least like. For example, you may not be a jogger so why jog. You may really enjoy bicycling so bicycle.

Lastly, engaging in an activity you enjoy with another person(s) can provide the social support necessary to help keep you motivated. Other people also help keep you accountable and realistic.  

Staying motivated over long periods of time can sometimes become difficult. A good way to stay motivated is to set small goals that lead up to one single long term goal. While on your way, be sure to celebrate and reward yourself for each small goal reached, and then press forward. Once you reach your long term goal, set another long term goal – and reach it through setting smaller short term goals!

Ariel & Shya Kane

There are three simple ways you can stay motivated over time. First, recognize that your mental chatter is just that – chatter! We suggest that you get interested in all the little ways you mentally say “no” without taking it seriously or judging what you discover. Oftentimes people set an exercise schedule but then in the next moment or day say to themselves, “No, I don’t want to today.” If you get interested in the internal conversation that you listen to, you can begin to bypass the dictates of your mind.

For example, we have a client who is a runner who has reported that he now mentally laughs at the "I don’t wanna" thoughts and the "it’s too early to get up – I want just a few more minutes of sleep", type thoughts as he is getting up and lacing his shoes for a run in the morning.

If you don’t recognize that that mental chatter is just chatter, you are likely to listen to it as if it is you, get lost and stop exercising when you “don’t want to”.

Second, practice keeping your word with yourself. If you follow through on doing what you say in little ways throughout your day, then it is easier to keep your word about the “bigger” things – such as keeping to an exercise routine. Life often throws us curves. There are disappointments or sometimes upsetting situations and often the first thing to get thrown away is exercise or eating well or taking care of ourselves because the easier knee-jerk reaction is to binge or lay around and feel sorry for oneself. However, if you have established a routine of doing what you say, then this can pull you through the desire to stay home on the couch with a bag of Doritos.

The third idea is this: You don’t have to do it alone! Haven’t you found it much easier to go to the gym if you are meeting someone there? Find friends and build a community of folks around you who will support you and whom you can support. It is so much easier to get up and get going if you know that you’re being active will make a difference in your friend’s life. It is easier if you have someone to reach out to if you hit the doldrums and someone who will reach out to you for the same type of support. It makes it fun. A sense of community makes being active easy, fun and playful instead of a chore.

Darren Treasure, PhD
Sports Medicine

So you have started to move but it is hard and you are worried that you won't be able to maintain your new activity levels. Here are some strategies that are focused on actually moving and doing. These strategies include:

  • Re-think your everyday experience. Specifically, take the stairs, park your car 2 minutes walk away from the mall/office, combine activities such as a walking meeting.
  • Establish a walking partnership with a friend who wants to become active
  • Join a group that has similar goals as you. These people can act not only as motivators but also provide much needed social support when change seems difficult or impossible
  • If you can work with a fitness professional who will help guide you through your initial attempts to being active and help you understand the benefits of activity
  • The strongest source of confidence is your own performance. If your initial work outs are successful you will feel more confident and more likely to persist.  Making your initial work outs too hard will guarantee “failure” and have a hugely negative impact on your confidence and motivation to continue.
  • Reinforce yourself for being successful through, for example, positive self-statements and small rewards.
  • Substitute physical activity as a stress reliever rather than poor choices such as sweets or alcohol.
Research shows and evidence support the idea that different strategies are going to be more effective at different stages of change. As you progress in your behavioral change check to make sure that you are using the decisions you are making in terms of your program are enhancing your performance and increasing your probability of success.

Elderly Bicyclists
Sadie Lincoln
The best advice I can give someone looking for long-term motivation, is to find something you love to do and always keep it fresh.  In addition, surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals with similar goals can provide the support needed to help you stay on track.  Finally, celebrate milestones.  Whether it's setting small weekly goals, such as making it to four classes on a busy schedule, or large ones, such as finishing a marathon. Each accomplishment deserves a little celebration and can help you to reach your ultimate goal of staying active.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.