7 Research-Backed Ways To Find Your Fitness Motivation

Makeover your mind to have an effect on the rest of your body.
So much work goes into deciding whether or not to exercise.
Xavier Arnau via Getty Images
So much work goes into deciding whether or not to exercise.

We should be all doing at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, but research shows that less than half of all American adults actually meet these minimum goals.

Clearly, exercise is a struggle. People who don't exercise feel they don't have enough time or are too tired to fit it in, according to a survey of middle-aged Americans. Participants also cited expensive gym memberships and not having a friend to go with them as reasons they didn't get enough physical activity.

But even if you do have the financial resources to pay for a gym membership, research shows that most who pay for one don't go at all. But fear not: For those who need a bit of prodding when it comes to exercise, we present seven research-backed tips on how to give yourself a motivation makeover. These tricks focus on changing your perspective so that you can find an exercise plan you love:

1. Dwell on a memory about that one time you exercised and actually enjoyed it.

Thinking happy thoughts about exercise could help you do it more often. A 2014 study finds that participants who were asked to think positive thoughts about exercise were more likely to exercise the next week than those who were asked to think about negative memories, or no memories at all.

2. Ask a friend to help you.

Whether it's an exercise buddy or your significant other, research shows that having someone support your fitness goals is a very good predictor that someone will continue exercising, writes Len Kravitz, an exercise researcher at the University of Mexico.

If you can’t think of a friend off the top of your head, join a group exercise class with the intention not just of attending, but of building a social network that can help keep you motivated.

3. Make an awesome playlist

Women who got to listen to their favorite music while exercising ran farther than women who listened to other music or no music, according to a 2015 study. While the playlist didn’t significantly change male participants’ running distances, we’re guessing men would at least enjoy their exercise more if they got to pick their own tunes.

4. Realize that it's not just 'all about genetics'

Emerging research shows that weight gain can be partly determined by genetics, but people who take this connection to heart are less likely to exercise and eat well, according to a 2015 study. It’s probably no surprise that people who believe their health is beyond their control would make less of an effort to improve it, so to work against that fatalistic mindset, educate yourself on what’s truly known -- and not known -- about how genes affect health. For instance, there is evidence that healthy behaviors like exercising and healthy eating can actually change the way your genes express themselves.

5. Focus more on the process than any external outcomes

For some people, “swimsuit season” or an upcoming high school reunion is enough motivation to get them working out. But experts say that over time, this form of “extrinsic” motivation wears off.

Instead of focusing on external results like fitting into a bathing suit or losing a certain amount of weight, try setting goals about the process of working out, such as maintaining your heart rate above a certain beat per minute, or focusing on the proper form of a certain exercise. A 2011 study found that people who set goals about the process of exercise had significantly higher levels of enjoyment and significantly lower levels of pressure or tension than people who set goals around certain outcomes. Most crucially, they were also able to stick to their workouts more than people who set outcome-based goals.

6. You've only got so much willpower, so use it wisely

Whether you’re a morning or evening exerciser might not matter as much as the activity you do before you exercise. Psychologist Roy Baumeister points out that it’s a lot tougher to motivate yourself to workout if your willpower has already been tapped by activities like listening to a speaker or making lots of decisions. So if you had planned on going for a jog after church or after a tough day at work, maybe consider juggling your schedule to jog on a different day, or before those willpower-draining activities.

7. Find something about your body that you love

Research suggests that you’re more likely to exercise if you have positive feelings about your body and are satisfied with how it works. A 2014 study among college women found that those who had a positive body image were more likely to exercise frequently, but those who exercised mainly to change their appearance had weaker positive body image. The researchers concluded that the most effective pro-exercise messages would de-emphasize weight loss and appearance in favor of feeling good about one’s body. To put it another way, you're not exercising to be worthy of self-love -- you're exercising because you already love your body.

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