Sure, it’s more difficult to get back into an exercise routine after a long layoff–or even start one when you’ve never worked out regularly before. Once working out is a regular part of your life, it’s easy to stay in the habit of keeping fit and healthy. But the battle’s not over. Even the most diehard fitness buffs occasionally fight workout burnout and boredom.
There are several reasons, says Michael C. Meyers, Ph.D., director of the Human Performance Center at West Texas A&M University. First, most people focus on a short-term approach rather than approaching exercise as a lifelong commitment. Once they achieve their initial goal, such as losing 15 pounds, they lose interest in the program.
The second reason is physiological. “As time goes on, the degree of improvement we see becomes smaller,” Meyers says. “Anyone can get off the couch and see tremendous gains at the outset. But as you keep going the changes become smaller, and it takes more effort to achieve smaller increments of success.”
And finally, many exercise programs are simply boring or don’t offer sufficient physical and mental challenge to keep people interested. Throw in work schedules, family responsibilities, illness or injury, and an ever-expanding to-do list, and it’s not surprising that many fitness routines get derailed.
What’s in it for you?
The good news is that it’s relatively easy to get back on track. First, realize that your reasons for working out may change over time. “People are frequently unaware of the various pros and cons of working out, and over time there can be a shift in the balance of those pros and cons,” says Dr. Houston MacIntosh, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Alexandria, Virginia, who specializes in sport psychology. “‘The reasons people started an exercise program may change over time as their lives change. They may have new responsibilities at work or family or relationships of one sort or another.”
If you want to stay motivated, take a closer look at the benefits you get from working out. “Be honest with yourself about the reasons you want to do something, and the reasons you don’t want to do it,” MacIntosh says. “You have to know yourself.” What’s your primary reason for making time to exercise? Is it the way you feel afterward? Is it the fact that you handle stress better?
Remember, what motivates you to hide the weights may do nothing for your best friend, and vice versa. “I think we all have different levels and different reasons we’re motivated,” says Stacy Rhea, a former competitive bodybuilder and fitness motivator in Seattle. “Some people have the desire for success. For others it’s vanity. Some are in it for health reasons. When it comes down to it, it does have to be something that comes from within, and it certainly will vary from person to person.”
Regardless of your personal reasons for working out, here are a number of techniques that will help you maintain your enthusiasm even when the going gets tough.
Commit to the long haul.
You can’t approach exercise as something you do just to get in shape for swimsuit season. “We have to realize that working out and staying fit is a lifetime event,” Meyers says. “We all need to be in it for the long haul. For example, if you have a bad day driving your car, you don’t walk tomorrow–you get back behind the wheel and keep on driving. If you have a bad day at work, you don’t quit work. You go back.” Realize that you’ll have ups and downs with your fitness program as you will in every aspect of your life, and commit to seeing it through.
Set new goals.
When you first start working out, you probably have a goal in mind. Maybe it is to lose weight, have more energy, or simply look better in your clothes. Once you’ve achieved those initial goals, you need to develop some new ones to keep you motivated. “Set higher or more specific goals,” Meyers says. “Don’t say, `I want to lose weight.’ That’s nebulous. Say, `I’m going to lose an inch off my waist in six weeks.’ “
Donna Szabo, 42, says that giving herself new challenges keeps her going back to the gym. “Before it was just the one goal, and now I always challenge myself to complete something higher to stay motivated,” says Szabo, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Reaching new goals keeps me motivated.”
Be a social butterfly.
Do you look forward to exercise as a chance to spend some needed time alone, or do you enjoy working out more when you’re with a partner? Consider what you like to do, and look for ways to make exercise more fun, MacIntosh suggests. If you’re looking for more social activity, consider taking classes or joining a running or biking club. Or ask a neighbor or friend to commit to a regular walking schedule with you. You’re more likely to stick to your program.
Hire a trainer.
If you’ve gotten bored with your routine, consider hiring a personal trainer for a few sessions. A trainer can help you break through a fitness plateau. “If your body has adapted to a program, you need help to take it to the next level,” Rhea says. “And sometimes coming to a trainer for two or three workouts to reevaluate and answer questions can give the variety, motivation, and spark you need.”
Get in higher gear.
If you’re doing the same workout day after day, chances are that you’re no longer getting much benefit out of it. You need to do more than simply spend 30 minutes on the stair climber for optimal results. “We measure our workouts by time and not by results,” Meyers says. “But going around the track every day for an hour doesn’t mean you’re getting much out of it. Physiologically, since improvement is going to come in smaller increments, you’ve got to kick it up a notch. Otherwise, the body won’t respond to the same resistance and will quit improving.”
Make it a priority.
If you’ve been missing workouts, simply planning for them and noting them on your calendar may help. If it’s always the first thing you ditch when things get hectic, you’ll have a hard time seeing results. Consistency is more important than exercising six days a week. “People have the misconception that it’s not going to work unless they’re at the gym every single day,” Rhea says. “They don’t realize that the little things they do make a difference. Even two days a week is better than not being there at all.”
Change up your routine.
Use the seasonal changes as a trigger to add something new to your program. When the weather warms up in the spring, Rhea adapts her program so she can be outside more often. Amy Arbuckle, 27, of Denver, creates 12- to 15-week training programs to keep her motivated. “I sit down and say this is going to be my start date and this is going to be my finish date,” Arbuckle says. “That’s a big motivator because I see that there’s a beginning and an end, and I have goals that I want to meet by a certain time period.”
Pump up the music.
If you don’t feel like working out, try playing some of your favorite music–something upbeat that will lift your spirits and get you moving. “On days I really don’t want to work out, music can always get me in the mood to work out,” Arbuckle says. Another trick she uses is to get dressed in her exercise clothes as soon as she gets home from work. “An hour or two may pass, but then I’ll say, `Well, I’m already dressed, so I might as well do the workout.’ “
Take time off.
If you’ve lost your enthusiasm for exercise, it may be your body’s way of telling you it needs some rest. After Arbuckle finishes her training cycle, she takes at least two weeks off. “I don’t sit around like a vegetable, but I’ll switch things up,” she says. “Maybe I’ll do the bike easy, or I’ll take up walking for a couple of weeks. I always do something that breaks the cycle so that when I restart it’s fresh and new to me.”
Use external reminders.
Another powerful way to help keep focused is by using visual cues. On your fridge, put a photograph of yourself before you start working out. Both Szabo and Arbuckle have used photographs to help them stay focused. “Depending on what my training goals are, there’s always something visual that has to be there to motivate me as well,” Arbuckle says. “The `before’ picture is always a huge motivator.”
Do something different.
Challenging yourself in a new way physically and mentally is one of the most effective ways to breathe new life into a tired exercise routine. While fitness experts recommend cross-training as a way to achieve overall strength and flexibility, reduce the risk of injury, and alleviate burnout, the fact is that most of us don’t try new things all that often. “It may be because of skill, or ability level, or cost of equipment, or the lack of immediate success,” Meyers says. “So we do or continue to do what is comfortable. But comfort is not necessarily stimulating. It’s sort of a self-imposed self-destruction. We don’t want to venture out of our comfort zone, so we become bored.”
You don’t need to revamp your entire routine. Just add a new class or change your regular workout once a week. By adding new elements to your program, you’ll also utilize your muscles in different ways, which improves your strength and reduces your risk of injury.
“In other words, you have to expand your program beyond your gym walls,” Meyers says. “Take it out and up a notch. Otherwise it’s the same old thing. And you’ll stay exactly the way you are physically and mentally. Then working out becomes a task and not a life-renewing event.”