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9 Ways to Convince (or Trick) Yourself to Start Working Out

6. Don't forget to congratulate yourself.

Source: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

Most people recognize the numerous benefits of exercise. But many of us find it difficult to exercise consistently. If you think, "I don't have the time," "I don't have enough energy," or "I'm not motivated," you're not alone: People who avoid exercise often give these reasons.

The problem with these perceived barriers is that they're difficult to change. If you have good intentions and believe you should exercise, how are you supposed to magically find the time, energy, or motivation to get started?

Chances are, if you're truly motivated to exercise, you'll find the time and energy to make it happen. Motivation tends to follow behavior, so finding a way to get started is the crucial step. And the fastest way to make this happen is to modify your physical and social environment to create a supportive context for exercise behavior.

But long-term adherence to an exercise program depends on intrinsic motivation. We tend to be more intrinsically motivated to participate in activities that we do well, that allow us to experience a sense of personal control, and that provide opportunities to build relationships with other people.

Following are nine examples of behavioral strategies you can use to get started, to maintain consistency, and to develop that intrinsic motivation to make exercise a part of your life.

  1. Don't have enough time? Schedule it.

    We schedule other obligations like work meetings, classes, and dinners with friends. If you're not used to scheduling, use a free electronic calendar (like Google Calendar). Making a commitment is one of the best ways to stay consistent with any behavior.

  2. Create antecedents or cues to exercise.

    Sometimes we need a stimulus to get us going. One option is to sync your smartphone to an electronic calendar and set up email or text message reminders to exercise. You can even make the messages funny or meaningful to inspire you. Another strategy is to put your workout clothes by your bed at night so you'll see them first thing in the morning. Do you work out with a friend? Agree to call each other before meeting up to make sure you're both ready to go.

  3. Keep track of your workouts.

    Get a notebook or create an Excel worksheet to monitor your progress. When did you exercise? For how long? At what intensity? How did you feel during and after? If you record data like this, you'll be aware of your consistency and improvements, which is one way to increase that mysterious motivation that's so hard to come by.

  4. Schedule exercise time with a friend.

    Social support is a powerful behavioral change tool. You and your friend will be less likely to skip a workout if you make a commitment to each other.

  5. Reinforce your exercise behavior with planned consequences.

    If "feeling good" after a workout were enough to influence regular intense activity, few people would have a problem with consistency. The reality is that, especially when you're gradually working your way back to exercising regularly, feeling good might not be enough, and there's no guarantee you will feel good each time you exercise. Instead, try using enjoyable activities as planned consequences. One option is to make an arrangement with yourself to watch TV in the evening only if you exercise first. To make this strategy more effective, ask another person, like a family member or roommate, to help you—for example, by holding onto the remote control. This strategy shouldn't be overused; it's more effective in the early stages of behavior change. Over time, with repetition, and as your fitness improves, you may find that your need for environmental control disappears.

  6. Congratulate yourself.

    Behavior change isn't easy. Remind yourself during and after exercise that you've accomplished something. Your self-talk might be as simple as "I did it! Great job!" but it can also be useful to connect your message to your goal. For example, if you exercise for your health, you might tell yourself, "Today I took another step toward improving my health. I'm proud of my effort." You can think about your self-talk message or you can say it out loud—which might have a bigger impact. (Although you might be embarrassed to verbally congratulate yourself, if you do it privately, nobody else will know.)

  7. Start with manageable activities.

    Many people attack new exercise programs with enthusiasm, a pattern that seems to peak around the start of a new year when resolutions are being made. Often these changes are unreasonably ambitious—daily and intense exercise, restrictive diets, and battling through fatigue. Instead of pushing yourself too hard, set yourself up for success. If you're not exercising at all, commit to walking a few days a week for 30 minutes at scheduled times. If you can accomplish your goal for two to three weeks, you'll likely experience greater confidence in your ability to maintain a program. This confidence is called self-efficacy—a belief in your own ability to effectively engage in a behavior. Once you start to change your behavior and your self-efficacy is elevated, you might consider increasing the time, frequency, or intensity of your workouts.

  8. Give yourself options.

    Even if you schedule your workouts, build flexibility into your plan to allow yourself to decide which workout you feel like doing on any given day. Making choices supports our need for autonomy, and it's a great way to build a sense of personal control over exercise behavior.

  9. Change your lifestyle.

    Exercise does not require you to purchase workout gear and gym memberships or set aside time for 30-60 minute workouts. The problem with separating exercise from other activities is that it's easier to step away from being active when life gets busy or stressful. We've all heard suggestions to "take the stairs" and "park far away from the entrance to the mall" as examples of things we can do to stay more active. But there are other creative options for reacquainting ourselves with activity, especially if "not enough time" is our go-to reason for staying sedentary. Some ideas: Use a standing desk at work, take walking work meetings, do push-ups while watching TV, do a pull-up on a doorway pull-up bar every time you walk into a room, play recreational sports, bike to the grocery store, chase your dog at the dog park, go dancing at a club or dance studio, or help a friend move. The more you can make activity a part of life, the easier it is to stay consistent.

An earlier version of this article appeared at Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

Interested in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), self-help tips, and improving personal health? Connect with me on Twitter (@joelminden) or Facebook.

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