Think tracking the numbers on the scale motivates you? Think again. "External feedback, like focusing on pounds lost or how your clothes fit, isn't sustainable for most people," says Michelle Segar, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of No Sweat. "You may see results one day or week, but when you don't, you won't want to exercise." Segar, a University of Michigan researcher who has spent her career studying motivation and behavior change, has identified science-backed solutions that do work.
Think of exercise as your secret weapon. You have to give physical activity extra importance if you're going to make time for it. One way to do that: "View it as an escape from your day that brings you energy and well-being," says Segar. "In studies I've conducted, women who do this make exercise a regular practice, while those who don't end up skipping it." Finding an activity that you love and combining it with other things that make you feel good, like running through your favorite park or listening to a funny podcast while you work out, can make it even more enjoyable, which ups the odds that you'll do it again tomorrow.
Be single-minded. It's tempting to overhaul several areas of your life at once—starting a new workout the same week you cut sugar from your diet, for example. But that sets you up for failure. "We don't have the cognitive capacity to change lots of things at one time and sustain what we've changed," says Segar. If you're new to exercise, give yourself a few months to stay consistent, then move forward with other goals.
Ditch the weekend-warrior mentality. It's better to exercise for 10 minutes four times a week than to hit the gym only for an hour and only on Saturday. "Research clearly shows that the people who stick with exercise for life are the ones who make it a staple of their week," says Segar. "Consistency is what helps you keep at it during life's ebbs and flows. When exercise is a part of your day, just like showering or sleep, barriers such as bad weather, work issues, kids, and even a bad mood don't stop you from getting at least a little activity," says Segar.
Stop saying yes all the time. Life is hectic; people and events will unintentionally hijack your goals if you let them, says Segar. You don't have to automatically say no when someone asks you to do something that interferes with your workout. But do pause before you respond and ask yourself, Is this request important enough to trump my feeling good and fueling the rest of my life? As Segar says, "You don't want your default to be yes if it's at the expense of your well-being."