Starting to exercise is difficult; and once you get started, continuing to exercise is even harder. Most of the time, it’s not the workout itself that stops people, but the lack of self-discipline.
Luckily, we have tips to help you strengthen your willpower and motivation for fitness.
Understand the Three Phases of Habit Formation
The brain uses more energy to curb your impulses than it does to perform other mental tasks.
And when our willpower fails us, we fall back on our habits — those automatic behaviors that allow us to function every day without having to consciously choose every single action.
Therefore, the important consideration isn’t how much willpower we have, but what habits we have, and which ones we need to modify or gain in order to automatically choose healthy options.
The Honeymoon Phase
The Honeymoon Phase is the early “this is easy” phase of establishing a new habit.
The Fight Through Phase
During the Fight Through Phase, reality sets in and you find yourself struggling to develop a new habit. To overcome this phase, you’ll first have to go through these three stages:
- Recognition: Acknowledge that you need to fight through and win a few to move forward. Winning makes the next thing you fight through easier to win, while losing makes the next one easier to lose.
- Questioning: Ask yourself how you’ll feel if you do this and how you’ll feel if you don’t. The objective here is to bring emotions into the equation. Feel the positive in winning and the negative in losing.
- Life Projection: Imagine in great detail how your life will be in five years if you do not make changes, and how it will be if you do. Be totally honest with yourself.
The Second Nature Phase
You’ll start to feel like you’re “getting in the groove” in the Second Nature Phase.
Remember that good habits require ongoing and consistent commitment. Discouragement and disruption of daily patterns can send you back to the Fight Through phase.
The good news is that, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re forming new habits every day. Be conscious of that and focus on habits that will serve you and your health well. Eventually, regular exercise will become your go-to behavior when you’re too tired or stressed to exercise self-control through willpower.
[Related: Get Moving to Manage Stress]
Cut the Excuses — Be Honest With Yourself
When it comes to exercise, anyone can come up with an excuse to avoid getting started. Most of the time, these excuses aren’t based in reality.
“I’m Too Busy”
Most people have a lot on their plates, but those who know the importance of fitness still manage to make time for it. This is a matter of prioritizing the activities that are most important.
“I’m Too Old”
If you’re still alive and breathing, age is never an excuse to not exercise. Just check out the many inspirational stories on our site to see what our amazing over-fifty community is doing!
“I’m Too Tired”
Studies have proven that if you are tired, some type of rigorous physical activity will boost your oxygen flow and, in effect, give you more energy, even post-workout.
Change Your Way of Thinking
If you’re struggling to get moving, look at what you’re thinking and saying to yourself about exercise. You may be surprised to discover that self-defeating thoughts are sneaking in and derailing your efforts while you’re not looking.
Here are a few thought patterns to watch out for.
“I’m Going to Start Exercising”
Sounds good, right? Well, not exactly.
“I’m going to start …” puts your intent squarely in the future, which is where it will stay until you begin telling yourself that you’re doing this now, not later.
Instead, say “I’m exercising every day,” whether you actually are or not. Your subconscious mind won’t notice the difference between what’s real and not, but it will produce urges to exercise — today.
Being “Perfect” for an Event
Forget about being “perfect” for that special event.
Instead, think about the benefits you expect to experience from exercising and weighing less: more energy, better fitting clothes, more stamina, and so on. Then, make it your goal to “learn” how to sustain the behavior of exercising regularly.
“I Have to Start Exercising”
Stop telling yourself that you “have to” or “must” do something.
Instead, short-circuit your inner rebel by saying “exercise makes me feel better.” Rather than saying “physical activity is important, therefore I’ve got to do it,” say “I like my life best when I exercise.”
By framing your self-talk in wording that demonstrates feel-good benefits, you’re engaging your subconscious to prompt you to exercise — and not being forced to overpower self-defeating thoughts through willpower.
“My Goal Is to Lose X Pounds Before…”
While we’re strong believers in setting deadlines for important projects, fitness is not a destination or a target on a chart. It’s a way of life.
How often have you achieved such a goal, only to gain the weight back right afterward? This isn’t something you can check off your list and be done with. Instead, you should think, “My goal is to exercise regularly and maintain my target weight.”
[Related: Guide to Weight Loss for Baby Boomers]
Close the Intention-Behavior Gap
Nearly 80% of inactive adults want to be active, yet 50% fail to be active. This phenomenon is known infamously as the “intention-behavior gap.”
What can you do to ensure that your intentions and behaviors align? Growing research suggests three potential strategies to help you stick to your resolutions.
Find Something You Enjoy
Most people who get into exercise are thinking of the long-term benefits, but these have little to do with the behavior (or act) of exercising itself. The people who stick with exercise are those who actually enjoy it.
To make exercise something you want to do, choose an activity that you find fun. If finding something new is not feasible, try adding something you enjoy to your current exercise to make it more bearable. Listening to music, watching a movie or TV show, or reading could help to make your next exercise session a more positive experience.
Evidence shows that if you plan your exercise, you are more likely to do it. The detail with which you plan could be important, too. A typical plan for physical activity involves the four Ws: what, when, where, and (with) whom.
Monitoring your progress is also important. If your workout wasn’t successful today, what adjustments can you make tomorrow to make it work? By simply knowing what you have done, you will have a better chance of controlling what you will do.
Make It a Habit
People who exercise regularly say they made exercising a “habit.” Well, growing evidence suggests that they are partly right.
According to contemporary definition, habits for exercising may boil down to two things: First, exercise that is more habitual is likely to occur in response to cues. People who stick with their exercise tend to do the same activity, at the same time, in the same environment. The consistency in the act of getting to and starting their exercise is more or less automatic.
The second component of habit is frequency. People who do the same exercise, at the same time, in the same environment and do it often are more likely to report their exercise as being habitual.
In sum, the more frequently you engage in exercise in similar situations, the more likely it is to become a habit, and the greater the chance that you will stick with it without having to muster up the motivation each time.
Avoid Decision Fatigue
Our willpower is not an infinite resource. Think of it like a muscle — after consistent use, it needs to rest and recharge before it’s back to its full capacity.
This concept is one of the reasons why Steve Jobs frequently donned his blue jeans and black turtleneck: to cut down on the decisions he had to make to save as much willpower throughout the day as possible. He wanted to keep his brain as sharp as possible to focus on the decisions that mattered most
Decision fatigue may be one of the reasons why you’re struggling to work out. Luckily, these tips will help minimize this problem.
Put Exercise First
We don’t only mean that you should prioritize exercise, but that you should literally put it first in your day.
You’re less likely to work out at the end of the day, when you’re tired from exercising willpower all day. In the morning, your mind and willpower are sharpest, and you’ll be more likely to follow through with your plan.
Automate Your Choices
The best way to ensure you make smart choices is to remove the act of choosing itself. When faced with the decision of how, when, and where to work out, you’re more likely to be overwhelmed with options and end up not exercising at all.
To avoid this possibility, plan all the details in advance and keep things as simple as possible. Create a standard workout rotation that you can progress through during the week, and lay out your clothes and equipment ahead of time. That way, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to do on any given day and won’t be taxed with making any decisions.
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