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How to Make Exercise a Habit: 10 Tips for Staying Motivated to Work Out

Making time for exercise is hard.

If you’re like me, much of your day is already spoken for. You work 9-to-5 (or some other shift that takes up an entire third of your day), and you somehow manage to eat/sleep/spend time with family/shop for groceries/manage your finances/clean your house/take care of pets/whoknowswhatelse during the precious time that you have left.

And you know that you also need to exercise…and that exercising even a little bit has tremendous health benefits…and that consistency is the key to being healthy…but staying motivated to work out is just so darn hard.

Believe me, the struggle is mutual.

I’m not perfect by any means, but I’ve recently (many failed attempts later) made exercise a habit. True story: I’ve exercised at least three days every week for nearly 15 weeks straight! Another true story: This is the most consistent I’ve been since I got engaged and tried to get in tip-top shape for my wedding more than three years ago.

Note: I am not a doctor or any other kind of health expert. I am speaking purely from personal experience here. You should always consult a trained health professional before making any drastic changes.

So how do you stay motivated to work out when life tries to get in the way?

1. Find a long-term workout program, and stick with it.

This has been a game-changer for me. In the past, I’d go to the gym and stop at whatever machine looked appealing to me at the time. And this is a perfectly fine approach if you’re merely looking to increase the number of minutes that you exercise.

But if you’re looking to make exercise a habit, and if you’re looking to make the most of the time that you do spend exercising, this willy-nilly approach will fail you. Because nothing else is motivating you other than the fact that you know you need to exercise (which, as we’ve already established, isn’t very motivating).

Enter a long-term workout program like P90X, 30-Day Shred, or any other workout program four weeks or longer. Once you get over the hump of completing the program’s first few workouts, you’ll have started a program. And if you’re like me, once you start something, you’ll want to finish it.

Plus, most long-term programs were created by professionals, so these programs tend to work every part of your body without overworking any part of it. Just be sure to follow the recommended order, rest days, time between workouts, etc. And don’t keep going if you feel like you’re hurting yourself. When in doubt, consult a professional.

2. Be flexible.

I know, I know—I just told you to have a plan and stick with it. But do you know what’s worse than not having a plan? Dreading your workouts. Because if you dread your workouts, you won’t continue to do them.

My advice? Listen to your body. If you wake up one morning and can’t stand the thought of a gut-wrenching cardio workout but yoga sounds awesome, then give yourself the freedom to do yoga or whatever other exercise sounds appealing to you that day. You can always get back on track with your long-term plan tomorrow.

3. Decide what is and isn’t acceptable.

The other key to having a plan while being flexible is to decide what you are and are not willing to accept from yourself. My own, personal standard? Exercising for at least 30, consecutive minutes three days a week. (Four or five days and 45 minutes would be better, but three and 30 are acceptable in my book.)

Exercising less than three days a week? Absolutely, positively not acceptable. Exercising for more or less than 30 consecutive minutes? An added bonus, but those minutes don’t count towards my minimum threshold.

The goal here is to set a realistic expectation that will work with your life but also push you to be more active. I chose three days of 30 minutes because I know that I stay too busy to commit to four, and I know that those 30 minutes will be heart-pounding, sweat-dripping, muscle-shaking goodness.

Maybe you can commit to more days or minutes, but you prefer more moderate exercise. Great! Set a standard that works for you.

4. Write it down.

Okay, so you’ve come up with a plan, set expectations, and promised yourself to be flexible. To keep yourself accountable, I HIGHLY recommend that you write everything down (preferably in the same place).

Choose whatever method works for you—a simple app like Evernote, a planner, a pretty journal. Don’t feel like searching for an effective method? Download a copy of my free, tracking-oriented planner/journal. It has spaces each day, week, and month for you to plan out your workouts and write down and track your goals, plus some blank pages in case you’d like to make something custom. The simplest method: Use the 2017 calendar (on page 1), and circle every day that you meet your exercise goal. By the end of the year, you’ll be able to see very quickly whether you’ve exercised consistently or not.


5. Set yourself up for success.

Now, the hard part: Sticking with it. The simplest, most effective thing that you can do to help yourself exercise consistently is to set yourself up for success.

For example, pack your workout clothes the night before, so they’re ready to grab when you inevitably run late for work.

Make plans to meet your friends no sooner than an hour after work, so you have time to swing by the gym or take a quick 30-minute walk or run. (Even better: Pack extra shampoo, deodorant, makeup, and towels in case you need to freshen up!)

When you’re expecting a busy week, decide at the beginning of the week which days you plan to work out. On those days, make no excuses. Just do it!

When you’re traveling, pack a set or two of workout clothes AND your oh-so-important tennis shoes. Whatever you do, don’t forget the tennis shoes. At least with the right shoes, you can take a long walk!

In sum: Don’t be surprised and forced to react. Instead, anticipate potential obstacles and plan accordingly.

6. Talk yourself up.

Do you have everything planned and ready to go, but you still feel unmotivated? Convince yourself otherwise. Start making a list of all of your favorite motivational quotes, and keep them somewhere convenient. (In your tracking-oriented journal, perhaps.) Then, when you need extra motivation, recite as many of them as you need to. My personal favorites:

  • “The body is never tired if the mind is not tired.” –General George S. Patton
  • “Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither was your body.” –P90X founder Tony Horton
  • “Just do it!” –Nike

Better yet, intersperse motivational quotes throughout your planner (like I did in mine), so they’ll surprise you when you least expect them. Then you won’t need a list; the quotes will be in your head, ready to be retrieved when you need them!


7. Multi-task if you have to.

Who said that when you exercise, you can only exercise? Why, nobody ever!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been binge-watching a TV show on Netflix with my husband when I wimper, “I really want to watch another episode, but I really need to work out…”

Well do you know what I’ve started doing? Both. Watching that next episode while doing push-ups and squats and planks and burpees on my living room floor. Remember what I said about flexibility?

Consider another scenario: You need to work out, but you also need to spend time with your family. So take your family hiking, walking, swimming, or biking. Or make your workouts a game and ask your kids to join you. (For inspiration, watch Carrie Underwood do yoga with her 2-year-old.)

No excuses; just make it happen!

8. Start small. You don’t have to do everything perfectly to begin with. (Or ever, actually!)

I’ve noticed that when most people decide they’re going to “be healthy,” they try to change everything all at once—they say they’re going to eat better, exercise more, stop ____, do more ____. I’ll admit, I’m guilty of it, too.

I’ve also noticed that when I try to make too many changes at once, I can’t seem to sustain those changes for the long-haul. So this time around, I started my fitness journey with a single commitment: to exercise. (Well, that and “drink more water,” because getting dehydrated from exercise is no fun!)

Did I change my diet? Nope. Not immediately.

Instead, I focused on making one thing, exercise, a priority. Would I have seen results faster had I changed my diet? You bet. But did changing my diet have any power over whether or not I exercised? Nope. So I didn’t worry about.

And do you know what happened? Several weeks in, my body started craving healthier foods. So I made small changes. I cut back on sweets and alcohol. I bought whole-grain bread instead of white.

By about 10 weeks in, after exercise had already become a habit, I started to make bigger changes. I made salads for lunch. I committed to eating healthy, wholesome foods 80 percent of the time and treating myself only 20 percent of the time. Personally, I find eating healthy to be harder than making time for exercise. But it’s been so much easier tackling them separately.

Remember: You don’t have to do ALL the things ALL the time. Small decisions can have huge impacts, so don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up from there!

9. Forget about how much you weigh and notice how you feel.

Repeat after me: Exercise is not about how much you weigh.

Say it again: Exercise is not about how much you weigh.

Consider: How many times have you exercised and felt incredible (i.e., sore) afterwards? All of the time, hopefully. Now answer me this: How many times have you exercised and saw an immediate drop in your weight? Like, never? No kidding!

Exercise is incredible for a number of reasons. It’ll give you more energy, lower your blood pressure, relieve stress, decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, even cancer. And yes, exercise can help you lose weight. But as a daily habit, losing weight is not what exercise is all about. And if your main motivation is to lose weight, you’ll get discouraged quickly because 1) losing weight takes a while, 2) exercise isn’t the end-all be-all factor to losing weight, and 3) you won’t see results every day.

Heck, I’ve been exercising consistently for nearly 15 weeks, and I’ve only lost five pounds.

Because exercise is not about losing weight. Exercise is about building muscle and shredding fat and feeling empowered and doing what’s right for your body now and forevermore.

If you start noticing and tracking how you feel rather than focusing on how much you weigh (or don’t weigh), you’ll be a whole lot happier and a whole lot likelier to make exercise a habit.

10. Remember: Consistency is key.

Lastly, but most importantly, remember that consistency is key. Or as my favorite workout instructor Tony Horton says, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither was your body. Do you best, and forget the rest!”

Did you have a bad day? A bad couple of days? A bad week, even? Don’t let that make you have a bad month or a bad year. Consistent good choices are just as impactful as consistent bad choices, so strive for the former. (But don’t beat yourself up when you fail because, let’s face it, nobody’s perfect!)

Take me, for example. I keep saying that I’ve worked out consistently for nearly 15 weeks. Notice the world “nearly”? I messed up two entire weeks during that stretch. Separate weeks with several good weeks between them, but two weeks nonetheless.

The first was in April, the same week that I went on a mini-vacation to the lake with friends, celebrated my husband’s birthday, celebrated our wedding anniversary, and attended a boozy reunion/retirement party. I didn’t exercise AT ALL.

The second was in June when I visited some friends in Massachusetts, where I had never been. We did a decent amount of walking, and we hiked for about two hours one day, but as far as exercise goes, that was it. I was on vacation and wanted to see as much as possible!

Both times, I put my bad week behind me and kept going. And look at me now—nearly 15 weeks in and still going strong.

How do you stay motivated to work out?


11 thoughts on “How to Make Exercise a Habit: 10 Tips for Staying Motivated to Work Out

  1. What a great post! My favorite workout mantra is one I actually heard on Biggest Loser: “Talk yourself into it, not out of it.” I constantly repeat that to myself during a hard boxing class, or when I’m tempted to skip one of my regular workouts.

    The other thing that works for me is to have a set routine; whether it’s running on specific days at specific times or going to certain classes on the same days each week, I basically have those things penciled in as permanent appointments so I’m less tempted to skip!

  2. You’re definitely right, working out is tough, especially while working 7-5, but also SO worth it. I’ve found that by scheduling my workouts or bringing exercise clothes to change in to after work has been a big motivator for me!

  3. I have learned more and more about how important it is to be flexible!
    Sometimes I’m not able to workout the way I want to one day; so I find another alternative!
    GREAT post lady! ❤

    1. Thank you! It took me FOREVER to realize that flexibility is key. Yoga is a lifesaver on days when I’m feeling particularly rough!

  4. This has so many helpful tips for me!!! Especially the reminder that we can’t do all the things all the time. This convinced me to go on a walk tonight and quit making excuses for getting outside, even if it’s not much 🙂

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