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9 exercise motivation ideas: How to keep moving when you don’t want to

Even elite athletes have days when their exercise motivation is low. It’s only human to wake up some days and just not be in the mood. Saying that, if this is happening to you on a regular basis, and you’re skipping more and more sessions, it may be time for a self-intervention.

There’s no one-size-fits-all method for regaining your motivation. That’s why we’ve put together a toolkit of techniques to get you back on track. Maybe just one of these tools will be enough to rediscover your enthusiasm for exercise; maybe you’ll need to try a combination of ideas.

Whatever the case, it’s worth making an investment in your exercise motivation, so that you can experience a healthy – and happy – fitness routine that works for you in the long term.

1. Choose habit over willpower

You’ll need willpower in the short term to get started with a fitness routine. But there’s a whole host of behavioural science research to show that you can’t rely on willpower in the long term. To maintain healthy choices, you need to convert them into habits.

That means harnessing the power of consistency. If you ‘always’ go the gym at 5pm on a Friday, it’ll start to feel weird not to.

You can also use techniques such as habit stacking, which involve pairing new habits with existing habits in order to make them stick.

2. Make it easy

Look at anything that’s holding you back from your fitness routine. For example, do you turn up to every workout feeling tired? Think about changing the time of day when you exercise. Fed up of the weather messing with your outdoor workout schedule? Consider joining a gym so you can get your fitness fix whenever you want.

As well as these big-picture items, try to care of as many little details as possible to make showing up a seamless process. Choose your outfit the evening before your workout to save time. Make sure your trainers fit and are comfortable. Pack up any kit that you think will enhance your workout, such as a water bottle or heart rate monitor.

3. Make it fun

Woman grinning, wearing exercise clothes, and carrying a yoga mat and a water bottle.

Studies show that if you enjoy exercise, you’re more likely to stick with it. Do you find the workouts you’re doing pleasurable? That doesn’t mean easy, necessarily, or that every moment is a source of joy, but it is important to like what you’re doing and feel good about your fitness achievements.

If the answer is no, consider changing the type of workout you’re doing, or look at different ways to make exercise more enjoyable.

4. Set goals

If you know you’re working towards something, that thought can help keep you motivated. Set realistic fitness goals to maintain your focus and remind yourself of why you started your fitness routine in the first place.

5. Track your progress

Similarly, seeing how far you’ve come can give you a big motivational boost. You might use a fitness tracker or measure it by how you look and feel; either way, when you see how you’re progressing, it should help you recommit to the process.

Saying that, do make sure your manage your own expectations. Fitness progression isn’t always linear – there’s always the possibility of a random bad run or an unexpectedly tricky day in the gym. If this happens to you, shake it off. Celebrate the positives and don’t overthink the negatives.

6. Get a workout partner

Two men on the ground fist-bumping each other over weights.

There’s research to suggest that exercising with others can help boost your exercise motivation. Of course, that won’t be true for every individual, but if you’re struggling to push yourself to exercise, it might be worth seeing if a friend of family member would like to buddy up with you. You could also consider booking a Personal Trainer, or joining a group exercise class.

7. Reward yourself

There’s nothing like the prospect of a treat to improve exercise motivation! You might reward yourself with something small for each workout – a post-exercise flat white, for example. Or you might promise yourself something bigger if you hit a particular goals – if you exercise consistently for a month, you’ll buy yourself those new trainers you’ve been eyeing up.

8. Try the 5-minute rule

If you’re right at the start of your workout and really aren’t in the mood, try this cognitive behaviour technique. Simply tell yourself that you only have to do your workout for 5 minutes – and set a timer. If at the end of 5 minutes you’re still not feeling good, stop. It’s that simple.

The point is that there will be plenty of occasions where that 5 minutes will be enough to get you warmed up and in the mood to carry on.

9. Break your workout into steps

Close-up on a woman's feet in trainers, moving up some stairs.

This is a technique that’s often recommended for work tasks, but it can help with exercise motivation, too.

Thinking of your workout as one big chunk can be off-putting – an hour-long run, for example, or a 90-minute gym session. In your head, break it down into smaller steps, and that might make it feel more manageable.

For example, you can think about a gym session as 10 minutes warm-up, followed by 30 minutes of weights, followed by 30 minutes of cardio… you get the idea. Picture yourself moving through the steps one at a time, rather than having to blast through the whole thing.

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