3 Psychology Tricks to Make Your Workout Plan Stick

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By: , SparkPeople Blogger
4/6/2011 10:00 AM   :  58 comments   :  107,138 Views

How do other people stay motivated?

I'm not motivated to work out. Help!

Where did my motivation go?


Motivation. We all want it, especially when it comes to eating healthy and exercising. So why are we always at a loss—looking for it, losing it, feeling helpless without it?

Knowing what to do is one thing, but staying motivated to do it long enough is another.

I recently came across an article that put an interesting spin on exercise motivation—one that was very reminiscent of my psychology classes in college. So what can the world of psychology tell us about exercise adherence, or, our chances of "sticking with" an exercise plan? Plenty.

In the article, writer and certified personal trainer James S. Fell of BodyForWife.com lists three key things that can help you stick to a workout plan: positive reinforcement, self-control, and social context. Here's how you can use these psychological principles to increase your own workout motivation.

Positive Reinforcement
"Operant conditioning theory states that if a stimulus, such as exercise, elicits a positive response, such as enjoyment or contentment, then people will seek to reproduce those feelings by engaging in the behavior again," writes Fell.

This is basic psychology. You can reward good behavior to encourage more of it, or punish bad behavior to discourage it. While experts and individuals may disagree on which option works best, most people prefer positive reinforcement to punishment.

So how does this apply to exercise? Well, you can choose activities that you enjoy, as Fell suggests. Rewards are another way to positively reinforce the behavior of working out. When you're having fun and enjoying whatever workout you're doing, you're more likely to want to do that workout again. This is definitely true for me. I don’t do any exercise that I don't enjoy, and that has to play a role in keeping me coming back for more. At the same time, when I skip a workout, I feel bad, guilty, and lazy—totally down in the dumps. That means I'm less likely to choose that as a "solution" to not feeling like working out in the future. Instead, even if I'm not feeling up to it, I remind myself that NOT doing it will make me feel worse. As I always tell people: You'll never regret exercising, but you will regret choosing to skip it.

Self-Control
In psychology, self-control is defined as behavior that produces the larger, longer-term reward when people are faced with the choice between it and the smaller, short-term reward. Fell quotes Barbara Brehm's 2004 book "Successful Fitness Motivation Strategies," to apply this to exercise: Put simply, "self-control is a limited resource and that the stress we experience during the day gradually erodes our willpower to exercise," she says. This explains why many studies have found that people who exercise in the morning have the highest adherence rates. The longer the day goes on, the more time and energy people have to expend to exert self-control. By the end of the day, we are worn out from all the "right" decisions we've made throughout the day and don't have it in is to exert self-control to go exercise.

To increase the amount of self-control you have over your workouts, you need to remove as many barriers, hurdles or excuses as possible to make it easier to make the right decision. Morning workouts work well for this. You could also come up with a list of excuses or hurdles that tend to get in the way of your workouts and then come up with an alternative plan that will allow you to work out or remove said barriers altogether.

Personally, I do a mix of morning and evening workouts. I make it as easy as possible to work out in the evening by packing my gym bag before work so I can go straight to the gym before I go anywhere else (I might encounter additional barriers if I ran errands or stopped at home first).

Social Context
By nature, human beings are social. We like to do things in groups, feel like we're part of the group, and we often look for acceptance and approval from others. For this reason, Fell says that working out by yourself can be a major barrier to sticking with an exercise routine.

SparkPeople is a big proponent of social support, which is why we strongly encourage members to get involved in our vibrant Community features like challenges, teams and message boards. People thrive with support, and in being able to share ideas with others and reach out for help and encouragement when they need it. That's why it's important to share your goals with others.

A fitness buddy can be a great motivator (provided you have a fitness buddy with lots of self-control and who also makes exercise a positive experience for you!), as can joining a gym (even if you work out solo while there), or taking group classes. They say that healthy and unhealthy habits alike can be "contagious," so the more you surround yourself with fitness-minded people, the more likely you'll be to behave like them, too.

For more tips to make exercise a habit—and stay motivated to stick with it—check out my series, The Habits of Fit People and be sure to read Fell's article in full over at latimes.com.

Make it fun. Make it as easy. Make it social. That's how you stick with a workout routine. Do you agree?

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Comments

  • 58
    I realized I create too many barriers to my success! Thank you for opening my eyes to this. - 4/24/2014   12:44:53 PM
  • MICHELE319
    57
    I really need to work on all three components. - 6/18/2013   4:07:42 PM
  • FITGIRL2K14
    56
    Great article! I love the way it provided some insight into maintaining motivation! - 5/25/2013   2:18:27 PM
  • POLODECAF
    55
    This is really interesting- I noticed that in spin class or any other lass if one person quits and walks out, other people start doing it (and I start wanting to do it) too. - 5/9/2013   7:18:36 AM
  • 54
    great article. - 3/21/2013   3:14:55 PM
  • SPARKLIN5
    53
    Working out doesn't have to be social. You can do it by yourself, but if the shoe fits, then why not, right?
    I think the most important thing one should just have is DETERMINATION and the drive to work, be fit and be healthy. - 5/2/2011   5:41:09 AM
  • 52
    I love thIs article..it all rings true. I think that the most important thing we can do for ourselves is to know ourselves..there are square pegs and round holes, and we need to accept ourselves for what we are and use our knowledge as power to put us in the best position possible to succeed. - 4/27/2011   11:52:31 AM
  • 51
    What if there is no activity one enjoys? What then?? I don't like any activity and find exercise to be akin to bamboo shoots under my nails. - 4/21/2011   11:34:46 AM
  • 50
    I have been really haveing trouble being motivated but i think i will use these tips to get back on track!!! Thanks
    - 4/17/2011   11:35:24 PM
  • ITSMEMANON
    49
    Fun is the way to go ... ! - 4/17/2011   10:46:57 AM
  • KTHRNADLN
    48
    Oh!!! That explains it!!! I want to exercise, but have little energy to make the right choice. I like this. I am beginning to exercise more frequently with a little help from my friend. Thanks - 4/16/2011   6:15:46 PM
  • 47
    I loved this article and it is so true. After working 11 hours I sometimes would rather go home but I bring my workout bag with me and go to the gym before I go home. On my days off, I make working out my first thing on my to do list. I don't have to have a buddy to work out, it helps but sometimes I just want to do my meditation and just talk with God and enjoy my surroundings. A deer ran out in front of me on Thursday while riding my bike, what a joy to see nature and watch him run and jump. - 4/16/2011   12:07:48 PM
  • JENNISTAR37
    46
    I agree: I don't think that the exercise I do is necessarily the most fun, but the feeling I get after I exercise is great. Even more motivating is the feeling I get when I don't exercise. For me the bad feeling is more of a motivator than the good! - 4/14/2011   4:51:11 PM
  • 45
    The article is good. For me it is restating what most of us know intuitively or have heard said different ways.Of course it is speaking in general terms. I am also an exception as far as working out alone. I mostly like it because 1) I can go at my own pace. 2) I can think/meditate while I work out (I know strange). 3) I can work out when I want to. 4) I am more reliable than waiting for friends that sometimes bail on workouts. That said occasionally it is nice to walk or ride a bike with someone else though. I also find motivation in working out for a "purpose". Like getting ready for an event. A local race (walk/run). Or a bike ride for charity. If I set up a few throughout the year it helps me have a reason to work out. That reason is I want to succeed and have fun at the event and not look foolish and out of shape! - 4/14/2011   3:00:25 PM
  • 44
    I hear this a lot when I talk to people about running. "I wouldn't run unless something was chasing me!" And I say something IS chasing me: Heart Disease!

    That is my motivation! I like to run, but I don't think it's for everyone. I had to find something I liked to do. I don't particularly like aerobics. I've tried classes in the past....it's just not for me. I like bootcamps. But not step aerobics or turbo jam, etc.

    I like to run alone usually, because when I run I'm constantly motivating myself; testing myself; pushing myself. Except for when I get to run with Coach Nancy! She keeps me sane!! :D - 4/14/2011   9:04:02 AM
  • 43
    There are some good tips in this article, but I don't entirely agree with a couple things here. Like BEMORESTUBBORN said, it's an individual choice when choosing how to go about working out. I too like to work out on my own. It's sometimes the only "me time" I get where I can just think without interruptions. I also prefer to work-out right after I get off work. Rather than the idea of the stress breaking away at my motivation to work-out, I see working out as an opportunity to relieve all of my stress from the day and get my mind off of it. - 4/13/2011   5:44:47 PM
  • KDIPAOLO
    42
    I have to say-after years of being physically active and hitting the gym, walking, etc. it is without a doubt my second job. That's how I have always thought of it. Not optional-not always fun and feeling great-but 'Ive got to show up. It's a lot of hard work and you must be as committed to exercise as you are to your "day job" !! :-) good luck y'all - 4/13/2011   12:28:20 AM
  • CRAZYMOMMY1222
    41
    Thanks. I think this will help. - 4/12/2011   10:23:28 PM
  • CINNAMONBARK
    40
    This is a great article. Just another example of why I love Spark People! The hardest thing about exercise isn't the exercise itself; it's the mindset, the *motivation* that is the hardest thing to achieve. Daily motivation is where it's at. Thanks for posting this wonderful article!! I'm recommending it to all my friends!
    - 4/12/2011   8:32:57 PM
  • 39
    Morning workouts are great! However, I haven't been sleeping well and am frequently tired. Consequently, I don't feel like doing certain workouts (mostly my weight training!). When I'm tired, I just want to climb on the treadmill or the elliptical at the gym and watch the movie in the theater room. So I do the weight training sessions twice a week with a trainer to make sure I get them in. It does cost a bit but I finally realized that I don't have the motivation to do it on my own at this particular point in my life. Having a great trainer to whom I feel responsible for showing up (else he doesn't get paid) is a great motivator for me. Plus he is very positive and flexible (e.g., he adjusts the workouts when I injured).And now I am starting to see some improvement in my ability to do more strenuous weight lifting, which is helping with the overall motivation. - 4/12/2011   8:12:24 PM
  • RUDEGELE
    38
    Sunshine65 what about water areobics. The classes are fun, social and low impact in your joints? - 4/12/2011   6:53:08 PM
  • 37
    I am sooooo discouraged! I was having a little fun at Curves with Zumba, but my energy level fell thru the floor and I haven't been back. Then 3 weeks ago my knee gave out and I am hobbling around. Tried Oxycise for a week and a half. It's not fun and I don't see any results. Most people who do it feel energized, but not me. The stuff I did love: bike riding, walking on the beach, volleyball, are no longer possible. What is an old lady to do? If I restrict calories too much I am in starvation mode. The pounds just will not come off. - 4/12/2011   5:51:47 PM
  • LITTLEGIRLSMOM1
    36
    Thanks for the great article... - 4/12/2011   2:16:38 PM
  • JEFFDVANBRUNT
    35
    I guess based on Dr Fell, I must not be human. I hate working out in a group or at a gym. I work out at home by myself ... I am more likely to work out at home than to take the time to go to a gym, or match my schedule to someone elses. I guess I am in the minority, however, recognize that different folks are motivated in different ways, and there is no such thing a a "cookie cutter" approach to motivation.

    As far as working out in the morning, it may be better but because I am suffering from exertion headaches pretty regularly, I can't. I work out late in the afternoon, or after dinner so that when I do get the headache, I can go to bed shortly afterwards. - 4/12/2011   1:44:36 PM
  • DIANASGUY
    34
    I am far from being perfect on my workout or diet. Each day I try to improve with a strong motivation strong in my mind. My older brother passed away from a heart attack at 45 years old, a few years latter my sister passed away at 45 years old. Seven others of my close relitives have passed away from heart attacks. The members of my family that have grown old (over 80) have been physically active and enjoyed the things they did. Working out at the gym is only part of my physical fitness program. Yard work, gardening, camping with family and friends, and hiking in our state and national parks are the larger part. - 4/12/2011   12:30:34 PM
  • ANNVAS
    33
    An ah ha moment for me. This article made a lot of sense to me. I can surely apply these principles in other areas of my life that I need to be motivated in. Thank you. - 4/12/2011   12:05:12 PM
  • 32
    I totally agree. Thank you!!! - 4/12/2011   11:30:07 AM
  • 31
    Going to the gym is my excuse for leaving work at a reasonable time (before 6pm). It's great! I totally look forward to going to the gym, but if I skip it I just have to work later - not fun at all. And I am a morning person, by 5pm I am itching to go to the gym. - 4/12/2011   9:52:24 AM
  • 30
    also, set a goal. Or track your improvement. The most common time I lose my momentum is when I'm not tracking to improvement. - 4/12/2011   9:11:06 AM
  • 29
    I totally agree with this.

    You definitely have to find something you love to do. Something you will enjoy doing over and over again. For me it's group classes. They motivate me and make me happy. :-) Also, it's nice to talk to people there. Meet new people. That's where the social thing comes in for me. I don't really workout with anyone though. I don't think I could honestly. Gym time is ME time. I love morning workouts too. I have more energy after a morning workout. - 4/12/2011   8:54:43 AM
  • 28
    Absolutely agree! - 4/12/2011   8:43:32 AM
  • LEENIKKIE
    27
    Making it fun would be great, but it's not always possible. I love "incidental" exercise; I could play volleyball, especially beach, for 5 hours. But I don't always have an opportunity to do that. What do you do when skipping your workout doesnt make you feel poorly??


    - 4/12/2011   8:26:16 AM
  • 26
    My motivation is I have a friend not much older than me who had to have open heart surgery which my father had as well. So for me, I just keep thinking about avoiding that and that is motivation enough for me!! - 4/12/2011   7:59:53 AM
  • 25
    every few weeks i change my routine at the gym, there it be that i switch to different cardio, add cardio, intervals, change my ST program.
    Things that will make it a challenge to do better the next time i am at the gym.
    Social?? I hate working out with other people - i always feel i need to hold back or i cant keep up with them. So i workout alone, love that feeling. Its ME time and i can let my thoughts go free and i dont feel i 'need' to be social hihihi - 4/12/2011   7:53:23 AM
  • 24
    Having minored in psychology in college (long time ago), you would think I would already know this. Great article, good reminder. Now if I can just follow through. However, I prefer exercising by myself whether it be at the gym or outside. It is ME time. However, if it were a class, that would be fun. - 4/12/2011   7:23:36 AM
  • 23
    Simple, yet highly effective advise. Thanks. - 4/12/2011   4:43:31 AM
  • 22
    I find it a lot easier to make it to the gym since my mom and sister and I all joined the same one! Usually I can get one or the other of them to meet me there. The variety of classes offered that you can just show up for helps a lot too - if the Zumba class is full, water aerobics will start shortly. With all the variety, I shouldn't get bored. - 4/10/2011   8:58:04 PM
  • 21
    I also pack my gym bag before I head to work. I used to stop by home (since it's on the way to the gym) but I would find myself getting into projects and before I knew it, it was dinner time, so I'd skip it all together.

    For me, a workout buddy doesn't work. I guess I don't know anyone who has the same workout goals, except my sister, who lives 45 minutes away. I like being able to go on my own schedule and not have to worry about what someone else is doing. - 4/7/2011   10:43:46 PM
  • VANANDEL
    20
    I totally agree, especially with working out in the mornings. Although I also work out at other times, I find the later I wait to exercise, the more of a chance it won't happen. Too many things come up which can derail a great intention! I feel fortunate that I love exercise, especially cycling. - 4/7/2011   1:32:21 PM
  • 19
    Fun? Yes.
    Social? Sorta. My husband and I will go for walks together. Otherwise, I do it alone and I don't mind.
    - 4/7/2011   1:03:54 PM
  • 18
    When exercise is fun, it is its own reinforcer. But sometimes exercise is not fun. We can use the Premack Principle to get us through that. Here we do not allow ourselves perform to a desired behavior until the undesired behavior is completed. Perhaps you hate to do strength training but love to play World of Warcraft. You contract with yourself to allow one-hour of gaming only after you complete thirty-minutes of strength training. - 4/7/2011   10:28:48 AM
  • STUARTLITTLE1
    17
    I heartily agree with all listed; certainly the first point. I can find all sorts of reasons not to exercise, especially when 5 days a week that exercise starts between 4:00 and 4:30 in the morning. However, I don't feel good about skipping it and that in itself provides my own self-induced negative reinforcement. I also find that cycling with my neighborhood group is not only motivational, it is social and pushes me. Now I need to line this all up for my eating, while not bad, could use some positive reinforcement. - 4/7/2011   9:23:50 AM
  • PICKANYNAME
    16
    As for making it social ..... tried many times and have found others, as in "friends," to be too unbelievably unreliable! Odd as it may make me, unless it's my yoga class [which I forced myself to start and now love], I prefer to go it alone for everything else in the way of exercise!!!!! I'm always there with bells on! - 4/7/2011   9:17:55 AM
  • 15
    How do I stick to my routine ? I do things that are fun ! I never really had a problem with having motivation to exercise. I'm fortunate that I've always enjoyed being active in some way. - 4/7/2011   9:15:34 AM
  • 14
    Make it social, what stinks is I have plenty of people I COULD make it social with because they too like to be healthy, but one, works part time, and works out when her kids are in school. Another does exercises that I don't enjoy (running, no stamina & Turbo Kick, no coordination). Another isn't motivated enough and really only likes to do things like yoga, and i dont trust her to show up regularly. It really stinks to have nobody. The rest of them, think working out is for fools. - 4/7/2011   9:09:11 AM
  • 13
    Zumba! - 4/7/2011   5:35:02 AM
  • KAKIPOPUP
    12
    Another example of negative reinforcement is taking aspirin when you have a headache - the aspirin removes the pain of the headache and you are therefore more likely to repeat the behavior of taking the aspirin the next time you have a headache.

    Reinforcement increases the frequency of a behavior; punishment reduces the frequency of a behavior. - 4/7/2011   3:26:29 AM
  • 11
    "punish bad behavior (negative reinforcement) to discourage it."

    It's a common misunderstanding, but this is actually not true. Negative reinforcement refers to applying something unpleasant and then taking the unpleasant experience away when the desired behavior is produced. It's negative reinforcement because you're reinforcing a behavior by the removal of something.

    Applying an unpleasant consequence to a behavior is punishment, not negative reinforcement. - 4/7/2011   1:35:11 AM
  • 10
    Make it fun. Guess that is why I love ZUMBA. Doesn't get more fun than that. - 4/7/2011   12:42:04 AM
  • 9
    Ahhh--self control erodes through the day. I never thought of that as a truth, but as a personal weakness. An observation of anybody's day would verify it. Thanks now I feel better and will be better armed! - 4/7/2011   12:09:19 AM

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