The first few weeks of a new fitness routine, you couldn’t be more stoked. You practically pop out of bed to hit the gym—rain or shine, snow or sleet! And then life happens. A colleague calls an early-morning meeting. A nasty cold strikes. You start to feel deflated, and your willpower fades.
Sound familiar? It’s a “vicious cycle of failure,” according to Michelle Segar, PhD, director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. For 20 years, she’s been studying motivation to figure out why so many of us struggle to keep it—especially when it comes to healthy habits.
Count everything—and add it up
Physical activity doesn’t have to be time-consuming or intense to count as exercise. “Many of the things you’re already doing qualify as healthy movement,” says Segar. So give yourself credit for crossing the parking lot (2 minutes), walking the dog (10 minutes), playing tag with your kids (15 minutes), gardening (20 minutes), even pushing a cart around the grocery store (25 minutes). “Virtually all of my clients have told me that the notion that ‘everything counts’ has been transformative for them,” Segar adds. “It makes them feel successful every time they move, which leads to higher energy levels all day long.”
Focus on the now
Once you start counting all the physical activity in your day, you realize it’s possible to squeeze in a little more (without changing into workout clothes). “Rather than thinking, I don’t have time, you start thinking, I can fit this in!” Segar explains. Whenever you have a small pocket of time—even if its just five minutes—ask yourself, What can I do right now? You might end up jogging the stairs 10 times, or knocking out a series of ab moves on the floor.
Do what feels good
“Our brains are hardwired to respond to immediate gratification, and to do what makes us feel good,” says Segar. This is one of the reasons we tend to give up on chore-like workouts. Segar’s advice: Choose a type of movement that feels good to you, and you will want to choose it again and again—whether it’s as simple as hiking or as trendy as Buti yoga (think power yoga fused with tribal dance and plyometrics!). Research backs up this advice: A Portuguese study from 2011 found that enjoying exercise was among the strongest predictors of whether a person continued exercising and maintained weight loss for the next three years.
Take ownership of your fitness
There are a lot of voices proclaiming that you “should” exercise—from your friends and family to your doctor and the media. But the most important voice is your own, says Segar: “Research suggests that a behavior change is more likely to ensue when you’ve identified what you really want from it.” You may be seeking better moods or stress relief, or maybe you just want to catch up with your workout buddy—it doesn’t matter, as long as you know what you’re after. (Not sure? Segar’s book can help you identify goals that will really work for you.)
Make one change at a time
Many of us feel so excited about “getting healthy” that we try to do multiple things at once, Segar says. “We decide to simultaneously work out more, learn to meditate, and start a new diet—and that’s a recipe for burnout.” Try focusing on just exercise first, Segar says. And above all else, remember to keep it fun, because that is the true secret to lasting motivation. As Segar puts it, “Do the physical movement you want to do, when you want to do it, for the amount of time your life allows.” That’s the best way to keep from lapsing altogether.