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Sure, working out is good for us, but what if we’re just not in the mood? As in, totally not in the mood. Is there hope?
Yes. Research shows that even our most unmotivated selves can get active, stick with the program, and (shocker) enjoy it.
The key is reframing how we think about physical activity. Fitness is usually sold to us as something that will help us live longer and reduce our risk of chronic disease. While this is true and great, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily motivate us in the moment to do pushups instead of downing Doritos. These four approaches work better.
#1 Ask: What will it do for me right now?
Immediate benefits—like relaxation, joy, stress relief, and sharp thinking—are far more motivating than the distant prospect of better health, according to behavioural scientists.
Identify the immediate perks:
A better mood, increased energy, a brainpower boost, stress relief, sharper focus, and positive feelings for yourself.
Play workout music:
For a rapid attitude adjustment, try the latest trap beat.
“I think back to the last time I finished a workout and how good it felt.”
—Jason H., fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick
“I love to run. Running is the best high there is.”
—Tashonna M., third-year undergraduate, Fleming College, Ontario
How & why to focus on the now
“Intrinsic feelings of success are highly valuable. People have to experience [the immediate benefits of exercise] for themselves. And the only way they will do that is if they perceive this goal [as] possible to achieve,” says Dr. Catherine Sabiston, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health and Associate Professor, University of Toronto. “It’s about setting realistic goals, such as walking to your next class, and then noticing how good you feel in your next class because you walked.”
How you work it
“I play my favourite workout song on my phone and that gets me the mood to engage in physical activity.”
—Tulsa P., third-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
“I’ll remember the time I was in a dull meeting and had to run outside to grab something, then how much more alert I felt afterward.”
—Jerome G., third-year undergraduate, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York
“I reflect on how exercising has helped my mood in the past. I want to keep the good feelings coming.”
—Amelia H., second-year undergraduate, University of Guelph, Ontario
“Think of a time when you know you won’t be able to get out there. It may help you to understand the importance of today.”
—Male fifth-year undergraduate, name & university withheld
#2 Mind trick: “This is so not about fitness”
Some physical activities don’t feel like exercise, with its clinical associations. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, many students described fitness as a mind game.
Lose the rules:
“Toss out any rules you might have about how to exercise, because research shows you won’t keep it up [if those rules don’t reflect your feelings],” says Dr. Michelle Segar, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (Amacom, 2015).
Give yourself permission:
“Even a five-minute bout of activity is enough to create a positive change,” says Dr. Catherine Sabiston, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health and Associate Professor, University of Toronto.
“I tell myself that I will only go for ten minutes. After the first ten minutes are done, I usually want to keep going.”
—Myura C., second-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta
“Find an activity, game, or sport that you enjoy. Even if it’s only mildly active, it can get the ball rolling.”
—Jeff P., fourth-year undergraduate, Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia
Why & how to make it about something else
“The general mentality around exercise is that it has to be done in a gym or on a treadmill or cardio machine. But it’s critical to find a physical activity that you enjoy because if you don’t enjoy it, you are not going to do it long term,” says Dr. Sabiston. “[Not everyone] enjoys high-intensity exercise. And thinking that exercise has to be high intensity can set someone up for failure before they even start.” What sets you up for success? Doing stuff you like, at a pace you like, in places you like.
How you work it
“I like to walk, so I’ll call a friend who lives nearby and we go for a long walk around the city. It’s a good way of getting some exercise and catching up.”
—Shanyne C., second-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
“I use studying as a motivation for running. I run to campus and get my library time done before running back home.”
—Hannah L., second-year graduate student, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“I do yoga videos. I don’t have to leave my house or change clothes.”
—Rachelle B., third-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario
“Treat yourself to something special. Take a ride to the beach to watch the sunset. Take the kayak out somewhere you’ve never been to and experience something new. Maybe even catch a fish for dinner.”
—Matthew C., fifth-year undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California
#3 Claim a tangible reward
Try associating fitness with a tangible reward. Again, this gets to those immediate benefits. If you’re someone who is motivated to avoid penalties, use that too.
Set a goal and relish the reward:
Maybe it’s only at the gym that you can watch the next episode on Netflix. Maybe you get a smoothie afterwards.
Consider a commitment contract:
“For example, you give money to a friend. If you hit your exercise target, you get the money back, but if you don’t, your friend gets to keep it,” says Dr. Fred Zimmerman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches exercise behavior. “The incentive has to be something that you want in order to be powerful,” says Dr. Ryan Rhodes, Director of the Behavioural Medicine lab at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. “Eventually, you want the incentive to become the act of exercising itself.”
“I make it a rule that I can only watch a TV show if I’m working out. So if I want to know what’s happening on Game of Thrones I have to be running.”
—Andi L., second-year undergraduate, University of Kansas
Why & how to claim your prize
This free goal-setting platform leverages the power of incentives and accountability; its creators (Yale researchers) say it more than triples your chances of success.
This app pays you when you meet your goals. Fair warning: If you don’t, your money goes to other users who hit theirs.
Be self-aware about your reward system—e.g., “Watch the revolving door effect if food becomes a reward for exercise,” says Beth Blackett, Peer Health Outreach Coordinator at Queen’s University, Ontario.
How you work it
“Listen to an audio book, but only while exercising. Hearing how a story ends is motivating to exercise.”
—Chris P., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Kansas
“The hardest thing to do for me is to work out in the morning. So I would make a rule that if I don’t get out of bed to work out, then I only get to drink water the entire day. Yes, no coffee.”
—Second-year undergraduate, name & college withheld
“As humans we love a good prize, so motivate yourself to be active by setting up an award for yourself afterwards, like getting your nails done or watching a movie.”
—Maggie K., second-year undergraduate, Concordia College, Minnesota
“Sometimes, I’ll say that I’m not allowed to do something until I’m active, and only after that will I reward myself.”
—Kyla X., first-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario
#4 Get with your fit friends
“It’s critical to have a support network of some sort. Use your friends for accountability,” says Dr. Sabiston. Working out in a pair, team, or group introduces cues to action, accountability, and reward.
Make a plan with a friend: Imagine the awkward if you don’t show up.
“I texted a friend and he kept telling me to get out and [be active]. I ended up biking
—Stephanie S., first-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario
“My peers are my biggest motivator for getting off the couch and being active. If they’re going out, I don’t want to be left out of the fun.”
—Peter N., third-year undergraduate, University of Guelph, Ontario
Find your people: It helps when your crowd includes some active types.
Watch other people being active:
If not in real life, on TV or online. In our survey, students said they were motivated by images on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Why & how the buddy system works
In a 2013 study involving 480 students, “having an exercise partner” and “having a friend who exercises” were rated among the top motivators for physical activity (along with wanting to look physically fit), according to the Archives of Exercise in Health and Disease.
How you work it
“I sign up for fitness classes so that I have a fun way to work out and it doesn’t feel like a chore.”
—Matthew T., third-year undergraduate, University of Lethbridge, Alberta
“Watch videos on YouTube or read some inspirational quotes. Follow people who are into fitness so that when you see their posts, you are motivated.”
—Kayla M., second-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario
“I look on Instagram for fitness gurus. They have super motivational accounts and always make me want to improve.”
—Erica R., second-year undergraduate, Fleming College, Ontario
“Make a plan to meet someone at the gym or do something active with another person so it’s harder to bail when you’re not in the mood.”
—Lisa S., fourth-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario
“Getting an accountability partner is the best thing you can do.”
—Ramish R., second-year undergraduate, SAIT Polytechnic, Alberta
More ways to make it social
Join an intramural team—maybe dodgeball, softball, or bowling.
Shake it out
Find a dance class: hip hop, Zumba®, jazz, break danciong, Bollywood. You know it will be a riot.
Get your quidditch on
- It started in J. K. Rowling’s fictional wizarding world and has become a legit sport.
- To act out your favorite characters, try Live Action Role Playing (LARPing)
Conquer life’s obstacles
Does belly crawling through mud sound like your idea of a good time? No? All the more reason to try it. The beginner’s version, a Spartan Sprint, is about 5 km long and has more than 20 obstacles (think fire pits and barbed wire). By the end of the course, your new muddy look will be all over Instagram.
+ Spartan Race®
Walk it out
Walk with a group or on your own. Pass the time by downloading your favourite podcast or audiobook or chatting with a friend.
More than 61 percent of college students engage in moderate cardiovascular or aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes on two or more days a week.
—American College Health Association – National College Health Assessment; Canadian Reference Group, Spring 2013
Metropolitan State University of Denver
“It was basically a giant playground with extra mud. It was easy not to think about it as a workout because there were monkey bars, giant slides, and huge mud baths that just remind you of being a kid!”
Show us how you get active without it feeling like a workout.
Use the hashtags #accidentalfitness and #SH101
No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness: Michelle Segar (American Management Association, 2015)