The Psychology of Fitness Motivation: What Works and What Doesn't
Forget treadmill intervals, burpees, muscle-quaking planks, and that killer final climb in Spin. Nope, the hardest part of working out is resisting every bodily urge to hit the snooze button, dragging your tired, sorry self out of bed, and groggily transporting yourself to the gym—all while trying to tune out the steady brain montage of potential excuses to turn around and go home and sleep for another hour.
But as tricky and elusive as motivation can feel, there's actually a science to our drive (or lack thereof). From the nature of our willpower reserves to the positive impact of working out with a friend, psychology experts uncover new insights about motivation all the time—in turn, making it easier to sidestep self-sabotage before it even has a chance to bowl us over. (Save that energy for your final sprint, ok?)
Step up your motivation with any of the 10 science-backed tricks below.
It's the oldest trick in the book for a reason: Research shows that we're much more motivated to work out (and push ourselves harder) when we have other people to spur us on. Whether you have a certain competitive pal in mind or would rather be in a group setting is up to you: Scientists have found that both scenarios can boost your mood, and in turn your motivation. (Shocker: You're much more inclined to break a sweat when you're actually enjoying it.)
Still, note that not all exercise partners are created equal. Psychologists and fitness experts alike agree that choosing someone with a compatible schedule, fitness goals, and temperament is ideal.
Log on to Facebook.
The power in numbers doesn't stop with a buddy system IRL: Research also shows that even a virtual network can be enough to propel your fitness habits forward. In a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania last year, scientists gave a group of students access to free fitness classes. Half of the group were exposed to regular promotional messages, while the other half were placed in social media networks with their (anonymous) peers. Those in the first group were motivated at first, before losing steam as the weeks passed. The social media group, however? Their motivation actually increased as time went on, and as they continued to update the members of their network with their progress.
Queue up a killer playlist.
Because sometimes only Beyoncé can power you through that last kilometre. No, really—research shows that people work out harder and longer when they're listening to music, since choosing the right songs can help reduce perceived effort. (One scientist even wrote that music is basically "a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.")
The key, of course, is how well you play DJ: Experts advise choosing songs that aren't just high-energy, but also offer an emotional connection.
Make it convenient.
You have a finite amount of daily willpower—more on that later—so don't waste it by making things more difficult than they need to be. For example, that swanky gym uptown might have all the bells and whistles but are you really going to be so inclined to take two trains to get there every day… at 5 a.m.? Don't underestimate convenience as a motivator in and of itself. In Nielsen's 2014 Global Consumer Exercise Trends Survey, 23% percent of participants labeled convenience as an essential part of the ideal fitness experience—second only to fun. (If you're stumped as to the best studios or gyms near you, now would be a great time to check out BodyPass.)
Think happy thoughts.
If you tend to view working out as a chore, then it may be time for an attitude adjustment. Research shows that those who associate exercise with positive memories are more likely to be consistent with their workouts. But it's also not just a matter of saying, "Okay, I love the treadmill now!" The easiest way to make yourself look forward to exercising is choosing something that you actually enjoy.
Exercise and diet are symbiotic in more ways than one: Working out consistently can actually change your hunger cues and how efficiently you digest food, while eating a balanced diet is key in fueling your workouts. Plus, if you're a results-oriented person or working out for weight loss, remember the old adage that "abs are made in the kitchen:" You'll need to double-down on your diet if you want to uncover the muscles you're working so hard to tone.
Set bite-size goals.
You might be tempted to set big goals right off the bat, like crop top–worthy abs or a half-marathon. But scientifically speaking, it's actually much harder to keep your eye on the prize when it's so placed so high. In a 2011 study, researchers found that people who set process-based goals—things like pressing a slightly higher weight over the course of a month or perfecting their form—were much more motivated to stick with their fitness routine than those who focused on achieving a certain outcome. Small victories, people!
Let willpower be your guide.
Willpower might seem like a pretty abstract concept, but fascinating new research suggests it might be more predictable than was previously thought. Different studies over the past couple of decades have suggested that willpower is actually a limited resource that can be drained by different activities and circumstances throughout the day. To counter that, your strategy is to be proactive: If you know that you need a lot of motivation to get yourself to the gym, then schedule your workouts for early in the day—before other things come up that might drain your willpower.
Put yourself first.
If you're taking the time to exercise, you're already showing yourself some TLC—go you! While it's easy to get hung up on both your progress and your endgame, just note that working out to find self-worth isn't just unhealthy—it's ineffective. Research shows that having a positive body image to begin with actually makes you more likely to keep exercising, probably because you're doing it for the right reasons. That's not even to mention that if you're focusing on how good working out makes you feel rather than how it makes you look, you're that much more likely to avoid injury and burnout.
What are some of your best workout motivation tips? Tell us in the comments below, and see how our editor transformed her body in only three months.