3 Psychology Tricks to Make Your Workout Plan Stick

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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.

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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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! Report
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. Report
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. Report
Zumba! Report
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. Report
"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. Report
Make it fun. Guess that is why I love ZUMBA. Doesn't get more fun than that. Report
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! Report
Absolutely agree! That's why I choose jumping rope as my main cardio workout - fun, easy and can create many varieties of jumping style or routine! Making it social? Maybe do it more at wide public area or share online on what you do with others, inspire-motivate-encourage, hehe. Report
Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! Report
Make it fun? Make it social? I never did succeed in getting my act together as far as being physically active goes, until I discovered hiking, and was blessed with the best hiking buddy in the world! Self-control? I need it for when I do things to stay fit for my hikes. Report
I love to work out outdoors. I hate the gym. Do what you love! Report
Gotta be (at least somewhat) enjoyable, or I won't do it. At least not on a regular basis. You have to put a little thought into it - plan a little - and remove those barriers. Overcome that nasty little saboteur in your head!!! Report
Make it fun? Yup - I do activities I enjoy (walking, cross-trainer), avoid the ones I don't (group classes, team sports), and use incentives for the ones I like but sometimes have difficulty committing to in the moment (e.g., only letting myself wear my favourite workout tights when I do strength training0.

I generally work out in the morning, before my self-control erodes. But I also taking the long walk home from work (30-45 minutes instead of 15) as a way to unwind after a hard day - and looking forward to a sunset stroll if I'm efficient in my work that day motivates me to work and exercise.

Make it social? Sort of. My husband and I try to stick to the same training schedule most days, so we get ready to work out together, and often go to the gym together, but we don't do the same thing. I like my solitude, too, so I don't like exercising with others. But I do work out with a trainer and I also participate in exercise challenges with colleagues. Report
Morning workouts are the best! It's true, when I have a morning appointment or I'm not able to workout until the evening I don't feel like it and it's not enjoyable even if it is something I like doing. Report
Make it fun? Absolutely! Exercise is work and if it's not enjoyable, you won't stick with it. Make it social? That's a very individual choice. Some people thrive on having a workout buddy, others, like me, prefer solitude. The key is to find what works for you and use it! Report
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