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How to Stay Motivated: 5 Steps Backed by Science

An object in motion tends to stay in motion (Newton, 1686). Unfortunately, an object sitting on the couch also tends to stay on the couch—unless moved by a powerful force that could very well be generated by one of these science-backed motivational strategies.

In the field of exercise psychology, there’s something called the “rational education” approach. A 2020 research paper published in the British Journal of Health Psychology described the concept succinctly:

This approach assumes that individuals are rational and if provided with complete information pertaining to a behaviour, they are likely to change their behaviour in the desired manner. … Nonetheless, it is quickly becoming evident that individuals often behave in ways that do not serve their self-interests (Ekkekakis & Zenko, 2016).

Translation: The rational approach is failing. Look better, be healthier, have better sex—it sounds like a bulletproof sales pitch for consistent exercise, but it’s clearly not working for the vast majority of the population. (You know the obesity stats; no need for another recap.) Time for a motivational refresh.

The following five exercise-related strategies are not the same old clichéd hacks that abound on social media. Rather, they are derived from actual peer-reviewed research studies, and implementing one or more of them could make your workouts more engaging, more enjoyable and yes, more motivating.

No. 1 Be Process-Oriented

As you know, the more specific a goal, the better your chances are for success. For example, instead of saying, I want to lose weight or I want to eat healthy, your goal should be something like I want to lose 5 pounds of body fat or I will add at least three servings of vegetables to my daily meals. These are called outcome goals because they express a desired result, and as long as they’re attainable, they have their place in your motivation arsenal.

However, process goals, in which the action itself is the objective, are often more effective in terms of motivation, and the more specific you are about what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it and for how long, the better. In a prominent United Kingdom study, researchers analyzed three groups of exercisers over a two-week period. One group received materials espousing the benefits of exercise at the beginning of the program; another group was required to write down the exact day, time and place they planned to execute at least 20 minutes of exercise; and a third control group received no materials or instructions at all. The results were significant: Ninety-one percent of those who wrote down a day/time/place for exercise got their workouts in, whereas less than 40 percent of those in the other two groups actually followed through.

Enjoy the Process

A process goal should be a specific, actionable item. “This could be, I will go to the gym and walk on a treadmill for 15 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this week,” says Olivia Papakyrikos, a mental health clinician at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham, Massachusetts. “If the goal is realistic and attainable, by the end of the week, you will have achieved [it] and boosted your confidence.”

This is not to say you should avoid outcome goals altogether—just tie them to your process goals for a better chance at success. “A fat-loss goal is awesome, and it might be powerful first thing Monday morning when you’re fresh and see the big picture,” says Lisa Lewis, Ed.D., licensed psychologist and owner of Dr. Lewis Consulting and Psychotherapy. “But that stand-alone goal can fall short on Saturday night when you’re out with friends and there are chips and salsa and margaritas in your face. In those moments, when the long game feels far away, you need shorter-term process goals.” In other words, she says, outcome goals provide the vision; process goals are the trail of breadcrumbs that get you there.

Woman's back flexing

No. 2 Imagine Yourself Motivated

According to recent research, mental imagery, during which you create a script of what you’re going to do and recite it to yourself regularly, can boost your motivation to exercise. The study, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise headed by exercise psychology professor Peter Giacobbi, Ph.D., analyzed exercise performance and adherence in two groups of female college students. Both groups received exercise-related peer mentoring, but only one group used mental imagery consisting of a short script recited daily for roughly 12 weeks. Results showed that the women using a script reported significantly greater increases in motivation than those receiving mentoring alone.

Script Yourself

“Our work has shown that when people sit down and use guided imagery for five to 15 minutes a day and visualize themselves achieving their health and fitness goals, they see positive effects,” Giacobbi says. To get you started, he recommends writing a short script—about 150 words—and reading it to yourself daily, or at least on workout days. “Think about a day that you exercised and accomplished a great workout,” he says. “Write out your thoughts, feelings and experiences from that workout and use those themes for your script. Include motivational and confidence-enhancing messages.” The more vivid and detailed the script, the more effective it is.

Giacobbi and his team used these prompts (among other instructions) during their study to help subjects formulate their scripts:

  • Feel the strength of your muscles and imagine the healthier, leaner body you are working to create.
  • Tell yourself that this strenuous exercise is worth the effort.
  • You will be stronger and look better because of your hard work.
  • Create the picture of your new fit, lean body.
  • Enjoy the feelings of strength, accomplishment and confidence. You look and feel great.
Woman listening to music

No. 3 Make Your Soundtrack Specific

Research as far back as the 1960s has shown music to be an ergogenic aid in the development of fundamental motor skills, and it’s now an accepted fact that music can help increase work capacity, endurance and strength while also decreasing fatigue and perceived exertion. It’s literally the cheapest motivational fitness coach money can buy. Getting the full effect of music, however, isn’t as simple as just listening to your favorite songs during a workout. Aspects like tempo, rhythm, meter and even lyrics need to be taken into consideration, and specific types of music pair better with certain activities and goals than others.

“The judicious use of music can bring about measurable and meaningful benefits to human performance—particularly when the beat is synced with work rate,” says Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., professor at Brunel University London.

Listen Here

In his book Applying Music in Exercise and Sport (Human Kinetics, August 2016), Karageorghis offers specific songs for various types of goals and workouts.

Pre-workout

“Close your eyes [for three minutes] and imagine yourself performing at your peak,” Karageorghis suggests. Choose one of the below songs for pre-workout power:

  • Roar, by Katy Perry
  • Gold, by Spandau Ballet
  • Search for the Hero, by M People

Strength Training

Because your heart rate is relatively low during traditional strength training, Karageorghis suggests songs with a tempo between 110 and 130 beats per minute. For example, pick one of these tracks:

  • Iron Man, by Black Sabbath
  • Power, by Kanye West, featuring Dwele
  • Black Dog, by Led Zeppelin
  • Don’t Push Me, by 50 Cent, featuring Lloyd Banks and Eminem

Treadmill Running

On a treadmill, you can either run in step to the beat or not. Here are Karageorghis’ top treadmill tunes:

  • Runaway, by Linkin Park
  • Run, Baby, Run, by Sheryl Crow
  • Run the World (Girls), by Beyoncé
  • Running Up That Hill, by Kate Bush

No. 4 Seek Competency

Getting better at something rather than just going through the motions and/or just trying to bang out a workout for the sake of burning calories is highly motivating. In psychology, this is known as the self-determination theory, which states that humans have an innate need for competence, relatedness (being connected to something) and autonomy.

“When we engage in activities where we can learn skills, get good [at them] and feel like a badass, it creates motivation that sticks,” Lewis says. “For example, people who get into martial arts really enjoy not just the moving [part of it] but also the learning part.”

Another word for this concept is “flow,” coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., in his best-selling book of the same name Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, July 2008). “Csikszentmihalyi’s concept is about getting into the zone and practicing your ‘craft,’” Lewis says. “This makes people happy, is intrinsically motivating and improves performance.”

Find Your Flow

Some physical activities involve more technique and skill development than others and, arguably, are better able to satisfy your craving for competency. “Sign up for a dance class, enroll in an introductory kettlebell training workshop or watch a few YouTube videos on drills to improve your breaststroke,” Lewis suggests. Sprinkle in a couple of skill-based disciplines to complement your existing fitness routine and amp your motivation quotient.

No. 5 Be Virtually Moved

In recent years, brands like Peloton, NordicTrack and Mirror have provided a motivational boost via coaching and virtual environments on a computer screen. Now, fitness technology is becoming even more immersive with the use of virtual reality headsets.

In a recent study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, Karageorghis and colleagues examined subjects doing a stationary cycling workout while wearing VR headsets and were shown computerized scenes of a rolling French countryside. The subjects who used VR experienced more positive emotions, felt more energized, focused less on feelings of discomfort and fatigue, and reported greater overall enjoyment during the workout. The effects were compounded when subjects used VR and listened to music simultaneously.

“VR almost takes the ‘work’ out of a workout,” Karageorghis says. “It is now highly accessible through use of a headset and a cellphone. You can exchange the scene of your living room for the California coast during your indoor cycling routine!”

Get Cybernetic

The headsets used in the above VR study were provided by Oculus and were combined with VZfit apps by VirZOOM, both of which can be used with a stationary bike or an elliptical trainer.

Give Your Goals the “Dead Man Test”

Dropping bad habits helps you achieve your goals, but don’t make avoidance your main focus. “Set goals to add, accomplish or gain something, and avoid setting ‘not-to’ or ‘stop’ goals,” Lisa Lewis says. “Instead of setting out not to sit on the couch all weekend, set out to go for a bike ride on Saturday afternoon.”

To determine whether your goal game is on point, run your intended achievement through the Dead Man Test (DMT). This concept, introduced in 1965 by late behavioral psychologist Ogden Lindsley, Ph.D., states that anything a deceased person can do doesn’t qualify as behavior, and thus shouldn’t be a goal. For instance, stop eating Doritos or don’t miss your workout. Here are some goals that would pass or fail the DMT:

Pass

  • I will do a 20-minute resistance-training circuit on Monday and Wednesday this week and will take Spin classes on Tuesday and Thursday.
  • I will wake at 6 a.m., get dressed and walk 2 miles before breakfast on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
  • I will meal-prep on Sunday and prepack my lunches for the entire week.

Fail

  • I won’t snack late at night.
  • I will stop eating unhealthy carbs like pasta, chips and sweets.
  • I won’t skip the gym after work.