Starting a new fitness program can be challenging. Keeping up the routine, though, when you’re sore, when work is tough, when you’re travelling—this is where the real trial begins. It’s so easy to make excuses, and let’s face it: it takes dedication to make working out happen day after day.
However, it’s not starting the program that gets you the results. The benefits of exercise—greater endurance, lost weight, improved memory and cognitive function—come with doing it regularly over a long period of time.
Dr. Scott McGinnis, neurology instructor at Harvard Medical School, writes that it takes engaging in a fitness program for six months to a year before the psychological effects of exercise take effect.
Consequently, it’s key to understand that while starting a fitness program might be relatively easy—after all, it’s just one action to take—you put on your workout clothes and exercise—the challenge is in maintaining it in the long run. So how to stay committed to working out?
Below are several potential obstacles to maintaining your fitness routine that you should be aware of if you want to develop a long-term habit of exercise. Know what they are now so that when they pop up, you’re ready!
Anticipate fluctuations in energy.
Your energy level varies throughout the day and from one day to the next. Of course, you should try to practice habits which sustain your energy in general, but there are going to be certain factors outside of your control. There are also going to be times you’ll slip up, such as staying out too late and not getting enough sleep.
The idea is to know you won’t always be bursting with energy, so you won’t make excuses for skipping the workout when you’re running low on it.
If you’ve been asking yourself: “why is it often easier to start a fitness program than it is to maintain one?” it’s mostly because of this: when you start out, you’re bursting with energy, fired up to change your life. And then you wake up tired and suddenly your fitness program doesn’t look that easy to maintain. Expect that your motivation and energy levels will vary—and exercise on both your good and bad days.
If you find it extremely hard to have a workout when you’re tired, at least perform a 1-minute workout. This way, you’ll have an easier time keeping your habit—whereas taking it easy every time you feel sub-optimal will lead to failure in establishing a permanent routine.
Know your limits before choosing a fitness program.
If you’ve never worked out before, picking a highly difficult program is going to present serious mental and physical challenges. Soreness is something you probably can’t avoid, but if you push too hard and injure yourself, you’ll likely be physically incapable of going on.
Listen to your body. Physical signs such as nausea, inability to catch your breath, and joint pains are signs you should dial down the intensity. You can work your way up to a more intense program in a healthy manner if you start within your reasonable limits.
Make sure you have accountability.
There should be tangible consequences for not sticking to your plan. Whether that be a withering stare from your workout partner or the loss of a personal reward you have set for yourself, you need to be held accountable in some way. Having a workout buddy is a great way to assure this.
However, there are other ways you can hold yourself accountable. If you have the resources, hiring a personal trainer may help keep you consistent. You can also pay for a 12-month gym pass in advance or invest in your chosen sport in any other way upfront to harness the positive power of the sunk cost fallacy that makes people continue with something they otherwise wouldn’t do just because of the costs they’ve incurred.
Envision your outcome.
Maybe you get to the halfway point of your exercise program and realize you don’t care about fitting into that dress as much as you thought you did. This is why it’s important to pick a goal that really matters to you.
If the number on the scale isn’t enough to work up your energy every day, create more incentives. Maybe you want to be able to attend a fitness-related event, or—no judgment here—maybe you really can’t wait to post before and after pictures to social media.
Another key to maintaining motivation is to imagine everything that will come with achieving your goal. Sure, you will lose weight, but you will also be able to keep up with your kids, show off to your family and friends, spend your vacations in a more active way, and most importantly, feel healthier and more vibrant in general. Let your imagination wander and get excited about your new future.
Incorporate technology but use it wisely.
Technology can be a great resource for keeping you disciplined. There are quality apps for keeping you on-track and motivated for fitness tracking. There are also numerous online communities where you can interact with other people who want to incorporate a permanent exercise habit in their lives.
However, be cautious: the online fitness community can be inspirational, but it can also become a source of discouragement. You’ll be tempted to compare yourself to others, and if you fall down that hole, pulling yourself out will be a challenge unto itself.
If you struggle with being hard on yourself, it might be wise to stay away from fitness-related social media pages. Instead, focus on your own progress and working out with people on your own level.
Watch your thoughts.
This is a big one. Your mind plays just as big a role in fitness as your body. How you see yourself physically may determine whether or not you start a fitness program, but your self-talk and self-image determine whether you stay the course.
Think empowering thoughts and be positive. When you are putting on your running shoes, thinking I am strong and I can do this is far more motivating than any degrading language you might use to try to push yourself—unless you’re a person who thrives on negative motivation and needs a kick in the pants to get going.
Have a plan for sustaining change after you’ve reached your goal.
The greatest threat to your progress comes after it’s achieved.
You’ve ran the marathon or lost the weight. Now you find yourself unsure of where to go next or you feel so proud of your accomplishment that you feel tempted to take it easy.
A study from Paul T. Williams, scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found that decreasing physical exercise—and especially stopping it altogether—predicts significant weight gain that can’t be reversed simply by resuming the exercise. This means it takes even greater effort to lose the weight a second time.
Plan ahead for how you will consistently maintain your activity over the long-term. This might mean changing your routine to add variety, trying different sports, setting bigger goals, focusing more on endurance over strength (or vice versa).
- One of the worst things you can do is base your routine around your level of energy. You won’t always have control over that. You do have control over keeping your routine consistent no matter how you’re feeling, though.
- Use every resource at your disposal to keep yourself going, including friends, technology, and positive thinking. By connecting as many sources of motivation and accountability as possible, you make it harder to break your resolution.
- Have a plan for sustaining change. Exercising should be a lifelong habit of never-ending improvement. Don’t stop just because you’ve accomplished your first goal.