5 Ways to Stick With Your Exercise Goals

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Getty Images/Pete Saloutos

Beginning or getting back to an exercise routine involves more than just scheduling your workouts and joining a gym. In fact, it's entirely possible to join a gym and never actually go, even as those monthly payments show up on your bank statement. I know this because I've done that a few times in my life. Sticking with your goals requires a few mental tricks to help keep you moving, focused and motivated.

1. Momentum. Momentum is a key part of consistent exercise. It's normal to have those weeks when everything goes right: You do all your workouts, eat like a health freak and start to think, 'I can totally do this!' Then 'it' happens. 'It' might be a holiday, a vacation, an illness...something that throws you off your game. Getting back is always tough, partly because you've lost that momentum. We already know (courtesy of Isaac Newton) that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, so getting moving again is the only way to get your momentum going. Think of yourself like a stalled car...once you start pushing it, it'll pick up speed and you won't have to work hard to keep it moving. If that analogy doesn't do it for you, try these ideas:

  • Focus on the habit. Instead of worrying about making up for lost time with crazy-intense workouts, focus on just getting some workout time in. Plan your workouts for the week and call yourself successful just for showing up.
  • Buy yourself a little something. I always get a little more excited about exercise when I have a shiny new pair of running shoes or a great pair of shorts to wear to the gym. If you're having trouble getting back to it, get a new outfit or download some new songs to your MP3 player so you have something to look forward to.
  • Make a date. Make an appointment to workout with a friend or call your gym and set up a free consultation with a personal trainer. Even if you don't sign up, getting back into the exercise environment can be just the nudge you need.
  • Do something different. If the thought of going back to boring gym workouts makes you want to curl up and die, do something totally different. Sign up for a local bellydancing class or check out that new yoga studio you drive by every day. A change of scenery and a brand new activity can refresh and rejuvenate you.

2. Stay in the Moment. Picture this: you're at a party and you've promised yourself you won't attack the buffet like a starving lunatic. Then you see a giant platter of the prettiest, most perfect cubes of cheese you've ever encountered. Several hours later, feeling your cheese hangover begin, you vow to make up for it tomorrow with a two-hour workout.

There are a couple of problems with this approach--first, you can't un-eat what you ate the night before and, second, killing yourself with a workout is not a great solution since it makes you hate exercise even more.

If you're busy living in yesterday's mistakes, many of your decisions will be based on guilt and shame rather than what you genuinely want (and need) to do to reach your goals. True change comes from daily choices and being mindful and basing your choices on what you need now (instead of what you did or didn't do yesterday) will make your exercise life much more tolerable.

  • Stop the blame game. If you mess up, give yourself a time limit for how long you'll feel bad about it. For example, if you missed your workout yesterday, give yourself permission to kick yourself for the next 20 minutes. When time's up, let it go and focus on today's workout.
  • Set daily goals. You might find it's easier to stay in the moment if you have specific daily goals, instead of just relying on a long-term goal to lose weight. Make a list of what you want to accomplish today (e.g., eat fruit with every meal, a 30-minute workout, getting at least 8,000 steps on my pedometer, etc.) and check off each thing you accomplish. Seeing your success in black and white makes it easier to feel successful.
  • Reward yourself. After setting and meeting your daily goals, plan a little something nice for yourself. Having something to look forward to always makes it easier to do the hard things (like exercise). Take a few minutes to listen to your favorite song, sip a hot cup of tea, take a bath or putter in the garage...whatever floats your boat.

3. Get Inspired. Every Tuesday and Thursday my 90-year-old grandmother goes to the gym and does water aerobics, no matter what. She's a great inspiration to me...if she can exercise, there's definitely no good reason I can't do my workout either. So, what or who inspires you? Is it the older woman you see walking every day, rain or shine? Or maybe it's a co-worker training for his first marathon. The next time you're thinking of skipping your workout, think of the person who inspires you...or think of my grandma (you can call her Maw Maw).

If she can exercise, so can you.

4. Get Back to Basics. I recently worked with a client who did very well on her program for about 3 months. Then the holidays hit and, before she knew it, those intense workouts were out the window. She even admitted to actually scrubbing her bathroom floor with a toothbrush to avoid her workouts. Now, that's bad! To get her back into some kind of routine, I simplified her workouts and made them short, accessible and much less complicated than before. Now, she's going strong and ready to add more complexity to her workouts. Why not try the same approach if you're having trouble getting back to it? Simplify your workouts by:

  • Choosing easy, accessible activities. Walking or running is something most of us can do without much preparation or equipment.
  • Try more compound movements (e.g., squats, lunges, pushups and dips) to save time and work more muscle groups.
  • Just move. If even taking a walk seems too complicated, simplify even more: Turn on the radio and dance around the house or do some kicks and punches while you're watching TV.
  • Try these short cardio and strength training workout ideas

5. Get to know yourself. If you've never been much of an exerciser or athlete, now is the time to discover a few new things about yourself.

Think of this as a learning period. If you've fallen off track because you're completely bored with your routine, you've just learned something important about yourself---that you hate treadmill workouts or that doing workout videos at home blows. Spend some time asking and answering these questions:

  • What do you like about your workouts?
  • What do you hate about your workouts?
  • What's your least favorite exercise or activity?
  • When do you most enjoy exercise?
  • If you could choose any physical activity to do, what would it be?
  • Do you enjoy working out with others or alone?

Now take the answers to those questions and look at your workout routine. Does it include activities you enjoy? Is your schedule in line with your body clock (or as close as you can get)? What could you do to make your workouts fit you better? Make a list of ideas and choose one to implement today. There's no right way to exercise.

Staying on track with your exercise program probably requires more mental work than physical work. It means checking in with yourself to see how you're doing, how the routine is working and making whatever changes necessary to keep you moving.

It means finding inspiration wherever you can and being willing to try new ideas if the old ones aren't working. Most of all, it means not giving up.

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