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Exercise: Staying motivated

Woman holding dumbells in both hands while in plank position.

Starting an exercise program is a great idea. But boredom, busy schedules and other issues can sometimes make it difficult to stay motivated.

At age 33, Pam R. can look back on a history of fitness activities, usually walking—sometimes on the treadmill at the gym—or using her exercise ball at home.

But time caught up with her. A full-time job, plus cooking, caring for her home and helping her husband, who's working toward his college degree, pretty much fills her days.

Before you know it, she says, "the day is gone and I need to go to sleep."

So Pam's resolve to maintain a regular fitness routine is on the back burner.

"Life invades, and I forget to take care of myself," she admits. "I've been struggling to get back on track."

That's just the kind of thing that happens to a lot of people, says Cedric Bryant, PhD, Chief Science Officer for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Even so, if you're struggling to stay motivated—for whatever reason—you can do something about it, he says.

Get time on your side

"One of the biggest contributors to exercise lapses is perceived lack of time," Dr. Bryant says. "Individuals have the best intentions...until time pressures start to squeeze in and exercise is squeezed out. That's particularly true for those who have not been regular exercisers."

To help overcome the time barrier, Dr. Bryant suggests scheduling exercise just as you do other appointments. 

It may also help to do your exercise early in the morning so you get it in before other things start to vie for your attention, he says.

Battle boredom

If your routine is getting stale, try shaking it up.

Pam says a different activity, such as swimming, might be just the thing to get her started again.

That's an idea that could help, according to Dr. Bryant.

"Many times people will go with programs that aren't fun or engaging, and the odds of sticking to something like that—no matter how disciplined you are—aren't going to be very high," he says. "I'd encourage them to experiment with different activities."

Keep your goals current

Setting goals is important, but it's OK to re-evaluate those goals as time goes by.

When Pam was younger, she says her goals were weight loss and "just feeling good." Now she's thinking more about her cardiovascular health.

Your first and most important goal should simply be getting regular activity, Dr. Bryant says.

Beyond that, be realistic about things that can affect your ability to meet your goals, such as the amount of time you have to devote to exercise, what your current fitness level allows you to do, and your age.

Review the rewards

If you're struggling to keep going, review the benefits and the potential rewards of your fitness program. Remind yourself of the reasons you started an exercise program, and consider how far you've already come.

If the long-term goal still seems distant, focus on benefits already realized, like improved sleep, more energy and less stress, Dr. Bryant says.

Fuel your body

If you don't provide your body with fuel, you may feel exhausted and reluctant to exercise.

Meals that combine protein and carbohydrates are best for sustaining energy. Aim for a balanced diet made from whole foods. And drink plenty of water throughout the day, the ACE recommends.

Break the plateau barrier

Sooner or later you are likely to reach a fitness plateau. If that happens, you may need to replace some of your current activities with more demanding ones.

Team up

If you've been a loner, maybe it's time to consider joining an exercise group, health club or YMCA. You could also team up with a friend, neighbor or family member.

Having someone else depend on you to lead the way will reinforce your own motivation to stay active.

Be flexible

Minor slips will happen. If you miss your usual exercise, work activity into your day another way.

Talk it over

Sometimes you just need encouragement from an expert—especially if you're having physical discomfort from an activity that hasn't caused you problems in the past. Discuss your concerns with your doctor or another health professional.

Don't pause too long

Sometimes you really do need a break. In that case, the ACE recommends cutting back on your usual routine. You can substitute other activities. But don't give up entirely, or you'll lose what you've already gained. Once you stop your fitness program, the benefits begin to diminish in about two weeks and will disappear in two to eight months, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Reviewed 9/24/2021

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