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?