Staying fit requires a high degree of consistency. You have to follow your diet, day in and day out. Do your workouts, on schedule, day after day, week after week. Get your eight hours of sleep a night. And you have to do all of this, week after week, with very few deviations from the plan.
The problem is, motivation isn’t consistent. There will be days when you feel motivated and days when you don’t. And yet, you need to work out on schedule, even when you don’t feel like it.
The following six tactics will help you learn how to motivate yourself to work out over time, and also enable you to produce exercise motivation on demand.
How to Motivate Yourself to Work Out
1. Use Stimulants
Contrary to what many athletes believe, caffeine doesn’t do all that much to physically increase your strength or endurance. Instead, caffeine’s beneficial effects on exercise performance are mostly brain-mediated. Caffeine supports exercise primarily by increasing the motivation to exercise while reducing subjective sensations of fatigue.
In the research, these effects are typically seen when people ingest somewhere between 3 and 6 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight, or between 1.36 and 2.72 mg per pound of bodyweight. For most people that equates to somewhere between 150 and 600 mg of caffeine.
Since caffeine tolerance starts to build up with ingestion of as little as 1.5 mg/kg of body weight, you should use as little as necessary to get the desired effects. Don’t aim to get that “jacked up” feeling that some pre-workout snacks can give you; just use the bare minimum needed when figuring out how to motivate yourself to work out.
You also have to consider how caffeine will affect your sleep — it can reduce the time spent in deep sleep well after you’ve stopped feeling its effects. As such, caffeine should mainly be used for morning and mid-day workouts.
For evening workouts, higenamine is a viable alternative. This little-known stimulant has caffeine-like effects, but with a half-life of only 15-30 minutes, it’s completely out of your body within two hours. That makes it an ideal caffeine substitute for evening workouts.
2. Sit Down Until You Crave Physical Activity
Exercising for too long makes you crave rest, but the reverse happens, too – prolonged inactivity can cause you to become antsy. Sit down long enough and you’ll feel a growing craving for physical activity.
You can use this. First, get a sense of how long you can sit down before you start feeling the urge to get up and move around. Before your scheduled workout, sit down for longer than you can tolerate – if you start getting the urge to move around after an hour of sitting, start sitting down 1.5-2 hours before your workout.
Now, when you get the urge to move, resist it. Force yourself to keep sitting down. The urge to get up and move will keep growing, but keep resisting it until it’s time for your workout. By that point, it’ll be a relief to finally get up and start exercising.
3. Find Your Preferred Level of Social Engagement
Some people prefer to work out alone. Some prefer to work out with a partner, while still others favor group classes.
Workouts will be more motivating if they conform to your optimal level of social engagement. You can think of that as falling on a scale that goes something like this:
- Work out alone, completely blocking out everyone else. Wear earphones, face the wall, etc.
- Work out alone, don’t talk to anyone, but don’t go out of your way to tune them out, either.
- Work out alone, exchange a few words with other people from time to time.
- Work out with a partner but don’t talk all that much, or work out “alone” but talk to people you know at the gym.
- Work out with a partner, spend a lot of time talking to each other.
- Group class in which students exercise alone, like Zumba or SoulCycle.
- Group activity where students directly interact with each other, as in playing sports or taking a martial arts class.
Figure out where you fall on this scale and plan your workouts accordingly.
4. Associate Exercise With Other Leisure Activities
Pair other activities you enjoy with exercise by engaging in them either before, during, or after your workout. A few examples:
- Listen to music or an audiobook while you exercise.
- Relax in the sauna after your workout.
- Read a book in the gym before or after your workout.
- Do a short workout at home immediately before watching your favorite TV show.
- Jog to and from a weekly event you enjoy.
- Play computer games on a treadmill desk.
While this obviously helps motivate you by rewarding you for exercising, over time it can also make exercise itself more enjoyable, since your brain associates it with the paired leisure activity.
5. Eat Cheat Meals Only After Workouts
Allow yourself a weekly cheat meal – or two or three – but only after your workouts. This has the dual effect of making cheat foods a reward for doing your workouts, while also timing those extra calories for the post-workout window when your body needs them most.
Related: Is Doing HIIT Twice a Day Effective?
Like the previous tactic, this motivates you to work out in the short run, while in the long run it can make workouts more enjoyable in and of themselves by associating them with a pleasant stimulus.
6. Give Yourself Semi-Random Rewards for Working Out
One of the more fascinating areas of behavioral psychology has to do with reinforcement schedules – how often and consistently a behavior is rewarded.
Studies have shown that a variable ratio schedule does the best job of motivating people to engage in a habit, and it also makes the habit most resistant to extinction once built.
Gambling, particularly slot machines, follows a variable ratio schedule – you win unpredictably, and that’s believed to be the main reason for gambling addiction. Many video games now use this same design philosophy to keep players playing the game for longer.
By attaching a variable ratio reward schedule to the desired habit like exercising, you can motivate yourself to work out, and make it easier to learn how to motivate yourself to work out over the long run.
One way to do this is to roll a die after each workout you fully complete, giving yourself the desired reward – like a cheat meal, a couple of hours of TV watching, or a glass of wine later that night – only when the die comes up a five or six.
If you’re achievement-motivated, logging your workouts and trying to hit personal records has much the same effect, since personal records happen unpredictably.
Note that these rewards are not entirely random, but semi-random – you can’t guarantee you’ll get them at any given time, but your own efforts are necessary to even have a chance of getting them. The reward is still connected to hard work, just in a way that’s more motivating than a more consistent reward schedule would be.
Motivation isn’t something that just happens to you. By using tactics like this, you can know how to motivate yourself to work out when you need it, and train yourself to enjoy exercise more and more as you build your workout habit.