Motivation comes and goes—but a regular workout routine makes fitness as easy as brushing your teeth. Here, eight ways to put exercise on autopilot.

By Cari Wira Dineen
January 30, 2020
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At this time of year, I have twice as many excuses not to exercise as I have jog bras. I want to linger in my warm bed a little longer on chilly mornings. The darkness comes too early at the end of each day. Plus, that looong holiday break seriously upended my daily routine. Got a few you’d like to add?

The struggle is real, agrees fitness trainer Kayla Itsines, creator of the BBG high-intensity circuit workout program, who hears it from her nearly 12 million Instagram followers and workout devotees. “Falling out of routine and losing motivation can be especially easy in winter,” she says. To stick with exercise, make it a habit instead of relying on motivation. The distinction, as Itsines sees it, is that motivation changes over time, but a habit will never let you down. “Habits help you push forward even when you have low motivation,” she says.

Getting to a point where working out is as mindless as combing your hair can take about two months, says Sandy Joy Weston, MEd, an exercise physiologist and the author of My 30-Day Reset Journal ($13; amazon.com). The secret is repetition plus consistent timing and cues, she says. Here’s why: The brain creates neuronal connections when you do something, and with each repetition, the connections get stronger and the action takes less effort.

The trick, of course, is making that first step. These ideas should help you break out of your fitness slump and into a feel-good groove.

RELATED: How to Start Working Out (If You Basically Haven’t Moved Since Halloween)

1
Lose the Guilt—Now

Your first habit-forming move: Forgive yourself for a slipup. “There’s evidence to suggest that if we can be kind and compassionate to ourselves when we fall off the wagon, we’re more likely to get back on the wagon faster,” says clinical psychologist Dayna Lee-Baggley, PhD, assistant professor at Dalhousie University and author of Healthy Habits Suck ($13; amazon.com). Don’t ruminate or self-flagellate; just move on and get back to work. “Tell yourself that to change your life, you have to make a change,” Itsines says. “Today is the day to start because there is never going to be the perfect time.”

2
Build in a Reward

The combination of a cue (say, a morning alarm) and a reward (an after-workout bite of chocolate, perhaps) helps exercise become and stay a habit, according to a study in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology. If science is telling you to celebrate your yoga session with an episode of The Crown or a shiny mani, who are you to argue? And wait, it gets better: Over time, creating an unbreakable workout habit will become a reward in itself. “If exercise is intrinsically rewarding—you like the way it feels or it reduces stress—you will respond automatically to your cue and not have to convince yourself to work out,” says lead study author Alison Phillips, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “You’ll want to exercise.”

3
Skew the Results in Your Favor…

“The hardest part is going from stationary to moving,” Lee-Baggley says. If you haven’t worked out in weeks (or more), set a goal you’re 90 percent sure you can achieve, she suggests. This can be something as doable as parking in the farthest reaches of the lot at the grocery store—get in those steps! Then you can tweak your usual goal by reducing the frequency (aim to work out once instead of three times this week), intensity (go for a walk and not a run), or length (one lap around the block instead of five). “When we keep failing at something, it’s the natural, human response to stop trying,” Lee-Baggley says. “But when we are successful, we want to keep doing it.” Lower the stakes and you may surprise yourself. “Even 10 minutes or so on my Peloton is enough to notice a difference in how I feel,” says Cassie Shortsleeve, a new mom from Brookline, Massachusetts. And don’t underestimate the power of momentum: “Usually, if I set out to just do something, I wind up doing more,” Shortsleeve says. That first step is the hardest one—so why not decide to work out for 30 minutes instead of 20?

4
…or Just Trick Yourself

I heard a story about a woman who kept her makeup bag at the gym. If she wanted to face the day powdered and put together, she was “forced” to go work out. Another woman slept in her sports bra so she could wake up and hit the ground running—until her doctor told her it might not be healthy for the girls. Then she placed her sneakers parallel to the threshold of her bedroom door at night so she’d have to step over them in the morning if she chose to blow off her workout. (Cue the reckoning!) “What these stories demonstrate is stimulus control, where you set up your environment to signal healthy habits,” Lee-Baggley says. By linking fitness to something you already have to do (like leave your bedroom or get ready for work), it becomes harder and less convenient to not work out.

5
Find Your Tribe

Workout pals really do work. Studies show that having a gym buddy significantly increases time spent exercising. That could be because we’re hardwired to care what other people think of us and don’t want to let down friends we’ve committed to, Lee-Baggley explains. “The only way I get back on track is through my friend network that I established at my gym,” says Denise Garrett, a compliance specialist in Westfield, New Jersey. “I ask them to hold me accountable by having them check my schedule with text messages,” she says. Garrett also asks her husband and kids to cheer her on and keep her responsible by writing her workouts on the family calendar for everyone to see. “They want to see me reach my goals,” she says. “After all, they’re the beneficiaries of my increased energy and good-mood endorphins.”

6
Micromanage Yourself

“You can’t say, ‘Maybe I’ll go for a run tomorrow’ and expect yourself to follow through,” says Itsines, whose empire is built on the manageable target of 28-minute workouts. “Create a plan for how you’ll achieve that goal.” Get granular: Check the weather for the morning, then pick your workout clothes. Determine how long it will take you to dress and set your alarm that much earlier. If you usually feed others in your household (with four legs or two legs), figure out whether you’ll do so before or after exercising. Leave nothing to chance—and you’ll set yourself up for success.

7
Do Something That Feels Fun

One friend was always so hotly jealous of the neighbor kids’ trampoline that she bought herself a rebounder. “When people ask me what’s the best workout, I always say, ‘The one that you will do,’” Weston says. Try workouts that spark some joy while you’re doing them.

8
Customize Your Playlist

Music has a way of embedding itself in our memories. A particular tune can take us back to our first dance, a relaxing vacation, or even a challenging but satisfying workout. So says a 2018 study published in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology: People remembered higher-intensity exercise, such as running on a treadmill, as a more pleasant experience when it was accompanied by music they chose themselves. No wonder I can’t hear “Stronger” by Kanye West or “Lose Yourself” by Eminem without wanting to get moving—those songs have been on my exercise playlist for years. “We make associations with music, so it brings up certain experiences or states of mind,” Lee-Bagley says. “If you’ve linked particular songs to your workout routine, hearing that music can take you back to the experience of working out, perhaps making it more likely you will engage in it.”

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