You’ve vowed that 2021 will be different. This will be your year: You’ll walk a 5K, or you’ll lose 10kg, or you’ll improve your overall wellness. But as anyone working toward fitness goals knows, finding the motivation to stick to your plan can feel next to impossible (especially after those first few weeks of January).
Motivation is impossible to quantify, and both researchers and trainers agree that it has to be carefully cultivated based on your unique interests, goals, and strengths. If you’re really dedicated to making this year your best yet, you can absolutely do it—and you’re in good company.
We consulted exercise experts, including top trainers and sports psychologists, to find the best tips to boost your workout motivation—so you can actually get excited about moving your body, eating healthy foods, and finding time to be the best version of yourself.
As much as you might want to, you can’t really fake motivation—at least not forever. But you can strengthen and learn from the drive you already have. It’s all a matter of discovering the best ways to turn your existing motivation into action.
✔️ Understand the rhythms of your motivation
“I don’t think that people should necessarily search for motivation,” explains pilates instructor Sonja Price Herbert. “Some days, you’re just feeling good, and that’s enough motivation.” If you find you’re in the mood, she says, put that positive energy into going for a walk, taking a yoga class, or running around the block. If you’re not, listen to your body and instead take that time to recharge.
When you realise that you’re working out more than usual, Herbert recommends trying to figure out what could be adding to your motivation—getting good sleep, eating well, or doing an especially meaningful exercise, for example—and adding it to your regular routine. “If you search for [motivation], it puts a lot of pressure on you,” she says. “Pay attention to how you’re feeling and let that be your motivation.”
✔️ Figure out why you want to exercise
“Ultimately, the biggest and most important factor is to find intrinsic motivation,” says Natalie Hanson, a champion powerlifter. This form of motivation comes from within (like improving your overall wellbeing), rather than from external pressures (like achieving a “beach body”). One 2012 study backs this up, observing a correlation between intrinsic motivation and more exercise.
Intrinsic goals will keep you feeling motivated much longer than extrinsic ones, Hanson says, because they’re guided by what you most want, rather than what you think others want from you. “If you are seeking motivation from outside of you, it’s always going to be fleeting. You’re always going to feel like you’re either not doing enough or like you’ve failed,” she explains. Instead, “try to bring [everything you do] back to your personal ‘why.’”
✔️ Rely on discipline, too
“When motivation fades, let discipline carry you through,” says fitness trainer Anja Garcia. “I always think about how I’ll feel after my workout. I always feel better after a workout, more energized, relaxed, accomplished. Sometimes you have to think forward to get you through the present.”
It might also help to think of motivation not as an intense drive to work out, but as something as simple (and disciplined) as a habit. “Creating that kind of relationship with exercise and with fitness is super-important,” Hanson says. “It’s just something you do, similar to brushing your teeth or drinking water. They’re just things that we know we have to do.”
Fitness journeys don’t start showing results on day one—you’ll have to find the motivation to stick with your plan before you start to notice changes. But that’s part of the appeal; you can figure out exactly what you want your life to look like, then work toward that ideal. Embrace the challenges along the way, and know that you can work through them.
✔️ Define who you want to be
You don’t have to change your life entirely just to stay motivated, but it doesn’t hurt to redefine your personal understanding of yourself. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I want to get in shape,’” says sports psychologist Eddie O’Connor. “‘I want to be a healthy person’ is a more powerful sentiment.”
Next, ask yourself what you need to do to become that self. What does an avid walker do? How does a cyclist act? O’Connor himself tried forms of fitness like running and triathlons, but he didn’t have a workout identity until he discovered CrossFit. Now, he finds motivation in the exercises themselves and in everything else that comes with being someone who does CrossFit, including the diet and the community. Finding your own fitness identity, he says, can offer the same results to anyone.
✔️ Set small goals
Tiny, daily goals, like completing 10 box jumps or five push-ups a day, can make fitness feel much more accessible, says Alex Silver-Fagan, author of Get Strong for Women. This way, you’ll feel accomplished every time you set foot in a gym or class, and you’ll be able to build them up over time. “It’s baby steps,” she explains, “and you have to stay with it when it gets hard.”
Those small goals can have a big payoff over time, as long as you keep investing time and energy in yourself. “Progress isn’t instant,” Silver-Fagan says. “One workout doesn’t make you in-shape. And one burger or one piece of pie isn’t going to put you over the edge.” Thinking in the long-term is more beneficial.
✔️ Think of how good you’ll feel after
Exercise delivers a mood-lifting, head-clearing jolt, one that athletes begin to seek out over time. “I really actually envision the outcome of my workout and how good I will feel, even doing nothing intense but just moving and getting the blood flowing,” says trainer Leanne Shear.
O’Connor agrees: “How I feel after working out is reward enough.” If you do need more than that athlete’s high to get through a workout, he says, just make sure that your payoff isn’t food-related, since “depriving yourself of something in order to later reward yourself with it will never be successful.”
The key to getting through tough workouts is finding the right balance between the things that make you work harder and those that reward you. Sometimes, experts say, they’re exactly the same.
✔️ Keep your workouts short
Shear says that when she’s not feeling a long, hard workout, she knows that even 15 minutes is better than nothing—and that she can still get an intense workout in. Sometimes knowing the finish line is so close is helpful. “If I am feeling less than motivated, I know it will be over quickly, I will have gotten a solid workout in, and I will be feeling great,” she says.
Studies have shown that even the shortest workouts, including HIIT, can have a positive impact on health. One 2014 study even found that just one minute of intense activity embedded in a 10-minute workout performed three times per week improved overall heart and metabolism health—not too bad for 60 seconds.
✔️ Find a workout buddy
Just when you think you can’t possibly do another burpee, your pal is there to say you can—and you do. “A workout buddy can help because it encourages people to make connections with others who share common values and are pursuing similar goals,” says Philip M. Wilson, associate professor and co-director of the Behavioral Health Sciences Research Lab in the department of kinesiology at Brock University.
Virtual workout partners can also help to increase physical activity, per a 2016 study from the University of Pennsylvania, so safety limitations posed by the pandemic don’t have to get in the way of a great workout.
✔️ Queue a killer workout playlist
Load your smartphone with your favorite high-energy songs and turn them up when you’re feeling too tired to change into your workout clothes—that pounding bass and racing tempo might actually get you moving and help you keep time once you’re on the move.
More often than not, you’ll perk up and feel ready to work out, says personal trainer Michael Everts. “It gets you to the gym—the hardest part of motivation—and once you’re there, you’ll probably stick around,” he explains.
Reporting and writing by Karen L. Smith-Janssen, Theodora Blanchfield, and Jake Smith