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How to Get Motivated to Work Out

Sports psychologists give simple strategies to get yourself to the gym on the days you really just don’t want to go.

If going to the gym has slowly transitioned from something you love to do into something you love to complain about doing, you’re not alone: “A lot of the athletes I work with love to work out but slowly that love of exercise can one day seem like a burden—especially if you’re not paid to do it,” says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Science at West Virginia University’s College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences. Sometimes you’re tired, sick, or just plain not in the mood. But too often, we tend to associate fitness with the negative—as a means to an end: to lose weight, build a better body, or fend of disease. And even if you are being paid to be an athlete, a love of a sport can turn into something everyone dreads: work. Somewhere along the way, you can lose sight of the positives, adds Dieffenbach. And making fitness something you see as fun can help keep you moving, research finds.

Of course, motivation can also wane because of day-to-day obstacles: You don’t want to sit in traffic all the way across town to the gym, you’re missing plans with friends by working up a sweat after work, you’re dreading that 5-mile run. In that case, you need to attack the obstacle head on, says Dieffenbach: Bring your bike to work, exercise in the morning, or—if it’s really the actual workout you’re dreading—change it up. “You could be doing the wrong workout,” she says. 

Fortunately, the field of sports psychology is also dedicated not only to getting you off your butt and back into the fitness groove, but keeping your brain in its prime for exercise. Here, pros share their tips on boosting motivation even on the days all you want to do is stay in bed. 

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Remove ‘Should’ from Your Vocabulary

By saying you ‘should’ exercise, you completely lose sight of why you want to push yourself—especially on a dreary day, says William Wiener, Ph.D., and sports psychologist. “You have to attach reason behind your desire to work out.” So change your ‘should’ to ‘want’: “I want to participate in this race” “I want to complete this goal” or “I want to be healthier”. Keeping this reason in your mind is motivational, Wiener says.

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Become a Planner

It may sound like a no-brainer to lay your clothes out the night before or leave your gym bag hanging on the front door, but doing so means you have to confront it on your way out or the minute you wake up, says Wiener. This not only makes a work out harder to ignore, but it keeps you on schedule.

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Avoid Soft Couches

Seriously. “A lot of times, the ‘I don’t feel like going to the gym feeling’ is a byproduct of the moment—you get sucked into the couch or the bed,” says Dieffenbach. If you work out after work, you know you’re going to be tired, so don’t go anywhere in the presence of obstacles or locations that can distract you from the gym, she says. Go straight there. “Make sure you’re setting yourself up to get there.”

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Remember That Feel Good Feeling

Think about this: Finishing up a killer run, sweaty and breathless, endorphins flowing, ready for a shower. “Most people who have worked out have at least had some moments where they felt incredibly good after a workout,” says Wiener. “Remembering that moment clearly and attaching to it can help you get your sneakers laced up and ready to go.”

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Have Back-Pocket Activities

Just like a camp counselor always has a plan for rainy days, you too should know what you’re going to do on those days you just don’t feel like going to the gym. After all, just because your usual sweat session gets bagged doesn’t mean you can’t move, says Dieffenbach. Scope out the roller blading rental place down the street in advance (and know the hours); have a rolodex of names ready to go so that you can call up a friend to try that rock wall downtown; seek out a few trails to take the dog out on. Then, when laziness strikes, strike back with plan B. 

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Write Down Attainable Goals

Research demonstrates that when people write down their goals, the probability that they reach them increases, says Wiener. “Doing this makes your goals more concrete—and it keeps you accountable to yourself.” Just make sure goals are attainable. If you set out to lose 40 pounds and you go to gym for a week and haven’t made a dent, that can be de-motivating, he says. Smaller, short-term goals work best both for weight loss and fitness gains, studies show. 

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Bargain with Yourself

Don’t feel like working out? Tell yourself you don’t have to do much, says Dieffenbach. That’s right. Literally, say: “You know what, I’m not going to do my full workout. I’m just going to do my cardio warm-up and if I still feel like bagging it, I’ll come back home.” Chances are, when you get to the gym, you’re going to do the whole workout, she says. 

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Grab a Beginner Friend

When high intensity doesn’t seem like an option, call your buddy who’s a little less advanced than you, says Dieffenbach. In your brain, you’ll be giving yourself a break with an easy ride or jog, but once you’re going, competition and adrenaline will kick in and you’ll likely amp it up, she says. That’s a win-win—for you and, especially, your buddy.

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Don’t Go

Can’t get yourself up to hit the weights? Don’t go. Really: “It’s OK to not go to the gym on those days you’re feeling kind of blah,” says Dieffenbach. A dangerous mindset with a lot of people is when they think: If I don’t go to the gym every single day, I’m not hardcore or dedicated enough and won’t get my gains. The truth of the matter is that recovery matters. “You just want to watch out for this becoming a habit,” Dieffenbach says. “But on those days you’re just tired—and you’re healthy and everything else is good—it’s OK to take a day off.”

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