3 Ways to Get (and Stay) Motivated to Exercise

By Carly Smith, BS, MPH(c) 

One of the hardest parts about exercising is finding the motivation to do it. Especially if you’re new to working out, motivation can be fleeting and dependent upon your daily mood or energy level. Even though we know that exercise greatly benefits our health, it may require weeks of effort and dedication before seeing significant results. 

So how do we stay motivated? Stanford Lifestyle Medicine Assistant Director and Exercise Physiology expert, Anne Friedlander, PhD, recommends three ways to incorporate exercise into our daily routine and establish a habit of exercise that remains consistent in the long run. 

Bundle Your Activities

Bundling your activities is a version of multitasking where you combine a pleasurable activity that provides instant gratification with an activity that involves delayed benefits, such as watching your favorite television show or listening to an audiobook on the treadmill. This type of multitasking, also known as “temptation bundling,” is a promising method to create and maintain an exercise habit. When your exercise is combined with a specific tv show, audiobook, or playlist each time, there is the incentive to exercise especially if you only allow yourself to partake in the engaging media while exercising. It creates an association between entertainment and physical activity, which allows you to benefit from exercise in the moment, rather than weeks or months later. 

While this approach may bypass the mind-body connections that exercise can offer, temptation bundling is a great way to create a new exercise habit or get back into a routine. After you’re confident in your ability to maintain your exercise routine, you can let go of the television show and focus on optimizing your mind-body connection while exercising which can enhance the cognitive and mood benefits of exercise. 

Research has been conducted on whether temptation bundling can improve motivation to exercise. In this study, researchers provided free audiobooks during workouts and measured the frequency in which people exercised. The results showed that not only were participants more likely to exercise compared to those not offered the audiobooks, they were more likely to keep up the habit after the study was over. The study also showed that the media needed to be enjoyable to the participants to increase incentive to exercise, meaning when the audiobook covered a topic that was particularly engaging for the participant, their motivation increased. 

So, if you’re having trouble starting or maintaining an exercise program, listen to an interesting audiobook while out on a jog or watch your favorite television show while cycling indoors to get you moving towards your health goals.  

“It is amazing how powerful temptation bundling can be if you find a good story or podcast and you only let yourself listen while doing your physical activity.  You may actually look forward to your next workout!” says Dr. Friedlander. “Eventually physical activity may become its own reward, but in the meantime, lace up your shoes and queue up that mystery thriller.”

Find a Workout Buddy

Working out with a partner, friend, or family member creates a two-way street of accountability and makes you more likely to show up for your goals. While the presence of your workout partner nudges you to stay on your goal, your presence also motivates them to do the same. Skipping a solo workout may require very little thought or work, but skipping a partner workout requires more work and requires you to explain to the other person your reason for skipping. This process helps avoid the fleeting temptations that would deter you from exercising based on mood or energy levels. 

Having someone to match your level of commitment also introduces a link between social connections and physical activity in the creation of a more healthy lifestyle. The pillars of our lives are interconnected, and strong habits often involve behaviors that embrace multiple aspects of our health. 

A workout buddy can be more than someone that helps you stick to your program. They can also be someone to offer and receive encouragement and support, talk about goals,discuss overcoming obstacles, and form memories and relationships. By making the habit a more involved aspect of your social life, you open yourself to broader potential benefits. 

“I am not a morning person, but I have a puppy who loves his playdates,” says Dr. Friedlander. “Every morning at 7 am I meet friends for a walk and puppy playtime. The group definitely helps me get out the door because I don’t want to disappoint either my human or puppy companions”.  

Choose an Exercise You Enjoy Doing

Just because exercise is something that you should do, doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy it. There is a certain level of discipline that is required to maintain an exercise routine over time, but you will be more motivated to stick to your routine if you like the type of exercise you are doing. If you enjoy team sports, you may enjoy achieving your exercise goals by joining a pickleball league, swim club, or soccer team. Alternatively, you may enjoy attending dance or yoga classes with friends or carving out a specific time in your schedule to lift weights at the gym. Even moderate-to-low intensity exercises, like going out for a walk every night after dinner, is beneficial for your health. 

The best exercise for you is one that you know you will actually show up for time and time again. An added bonus is that you do not have to spend hours exercising to impact your health. The United States Department of Health and Human Services says that no matter the amount of exercise you are able to achieve, most efforts to overcome sedentary lifestyles have a positive impact on all-cause mortality. This means that even incorporating small bouts of moderate-to-vigorous exercises can increase your relative life expectancy. Thus, shifting your focus to do activities that you enjoy and will do daily or weekly may give yourself the best odds for success in the long-run. 

“If you’re having trouble finding motivation, start small,” says Dr. Friedlander. “Following exercise guidelines is optimal, but doing any level of physical activity is better than nothing and can improve your health and mood, especially if kept consistent.”