6 mental tricks tricks that help make exercise a habit

Helpful hacks to get your mind in the game — and your body back in the gym.
by Brianna Steinhilber /
Woman runner stretches
Look at your day as a series of individual opportunities to make a healthy choice, instead of an "all or nothing" mentality where one slip up can derail you.Shutterstock
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If your fitness routine has been less than consistent over the past few months, you’re likely not alone. Summer is a unique season: longer days often consist of making after-work plans with friends, taking family vacations and and spending weekends at outdoor barbecues or the beach — not hours logged inside a gym.

And while the warm weather does provide ample opportunity to be active outdoors, a more erratic schedule can make it difficult to schedule it in consistently. Now that fall is here and work and family obligations tend to fall back in line, we can make fitness a more consistent part of our routine again.

But after a few lax months, this is easier said than done. Anyone who has tried to lose weight, tone up or even just simply recommit to exercise knows that the battle is often more mental than physical. So we tapped Stephanie Mansour, personal trainer and CEO of Step It Up with Steph, for some advice on how she helps her clients overcome that mental hurdle. Here are some of her best mental hacks to get your mind in the game — and your body back in the gym.

Start with mini workouts

Your normal plan of attack is likely to hit the ground running, scheduling hour-long gym sessions a few days a week. But Mansour says to start small. We’re talking 5-minute workout small.

“I tell my weight-loss clients who are not used to working out that they need to start with a mini workout,” says Mansour. It is an immediate way to combat any excuse you may have on why you can’t exercise — after all, who doesn’t have five minutes to spare? “Some people say, ‘I don’t have 30 minutes to work out; I can’t even get to the gym; where do I start?’ Start with a mini workout — literally 5 minutes,” she says.

It could be crunches while you’re watching TV, squats while you fold the laundry or a walk around the block. “It sounds gimmicky but these are the types of movements that you want to start doing so you get that muscle memory,” says Mansour. “In your mind you’re seeing the workout as just five minutes and who knows? You may be inspired to go for five more minutes and that will build and build.”

This mental hack is twofold. First, it’s easier to convince yourself to do something for five minutes rather than 30, especially if you’ve been off your workout grind for a while. Beyond that, you are slowly starting to condition your mind to put health front and center and getting your body used to moving, which will help build motivation over time.

Trim down your goals

Setting concrete goals is a great way to get your head back in the game and science shows that doing so does encourage behavior change when it comes to diet and fitness. But setting the right kind of goal is key. One that is too lofty has the potential to have the opposite effect, leaving us discouraged and preventing us from sticking with it. Which is why many health experts encourage us to set “SMART” goals: Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound.

Mansour zeros in on the “attainable” aspect by encouraging people to make their goals more manageable. This could mean reducing your weight-loss goal, lowering the amount of produce you aim to eat each day or shortening the amount of time you schedule at the gym. It may sound odd to aim to achieve less, but Mansour cites an example of one of her weight-loss clients who found success with this method: “One of my clients had a step tracker and the default setting was 10,000 steps a day. It sounds doable, but this client was consistently falling short, she would barely hit 8,000 most days. So I asked her, ‘Why are you setting this goal at something you’re never achieving and then at the end of the day you feel so bad about yourself?’” says Mansour.

She says the solution is simple: Make it attainable by going micro. “You’re training your brain that you are successful. If I lower her goal to 8,000 steps, she’s constantly hitting that goal, and that makes her feel confident, happy and strong — like she can do it,” she says. Once her client built a momentum of seeing that she could accomplish her goal each day, she steadily increased it and is now at 12,000 steps a day. “It took six weeks, but it’s because of that instant gratification you get from seeing that goal hit by the end of the day; you see that you hit your goal or even surpassed it and that motivates you to keep going,” she adds.

Adopt a ‘go with the flow’ attitude

“I have one client who used to get ready for a workout class and if she was five minutes late or got the wrong time for the class, she'd just go home instead of working out in the gym,” says Mansour. “She said she was too embarrassed to interrupt the class and felt defeated, so she went home.” (Going home often meant soothing the defeat with pizza on the couch. See: all or nothing mentality below.)

Instead of retreating back home, Mansour says that having more of a “go with the flow” mindset instead of being so rigid and structured will enable you to create a Plan B (and C and D) to fall back on when things don’t go as planned (which, will inevitably happen). In this client’s case, a Plan B meant hopping on a treadmill for the duration of the class on the days when she is a few minutes late.

Many of us have a rigid view of what constitutes exercise, but the truth is that if you can’t make it to the gym, there are countless ways to get that movement in elsewhere in your day.

This also means being more flexible in incorporating movement throughout the day. Many of us have a rigid view of what constitutes “exercise,” but the truth is that if you can’t make it to the gym, there are countless ways to get that movement in elsewhere in your day. “If you live in a two story home, go up and down the stairs for 10 minutes; have a separate bag in your car and in your office that includes headphones plus clothes and sneakers so you're prepared; if you walk your dog, commit to walking one block speed walking and then one block regular pace walking to add intervals into your nightly chore; if you're doing laundry, do 10 overhead presses then 10 squats before and after each load,” says Mansour.

Make skipping a workout a conscious decision

Often, deciding to skip a workout isn't really a decision at all: We sleep late and don't get to the gym or we sit down to rest on the couch when we get home and time gets away from us.

Mansour encourages people to make this an active choice that we have control over, versus something happening to us. By making it a conscious decision, you're holding yourself accountable — and making it effort to cancel your workout plans.

"People say out of sight out of mind — same thing with workout equipment and wardrobe," she says. How do we keep them in sight? Mansour offers up a trick: Put your gym bag and yoga mat on your couch, so that before you sit down to watch TV after work, you have to consciously decide to not exercise, and physically move your workout gear off the couch to sit down. Some other ideas are: sleep in your workout clothes or put them on before you leave the office so that you have to choose to take them off without exercising, or leave your sneakers or gym bag sitting somewhere front and center so you have to make the conscious choice to leave them there. Chances are, when you have to exert extra effort to not exercise, you'll be more likely to follow through with your original plans.

Don’t get pigeonholed into one type of workout

It's easy to fall into the hype of trendy diets and workouts, but health isn't one size fits all and what works for one person may not garner the same results for another. In fact, what works for you at one time of your life may not work at another.

“Clients come to me all the time saying they're busting their butt in the gym for weeks and months, but not seeing any results,” says Mansour. “If something isn’t working for you, try something new. Think about what your body actually needs. It's okay to make a change if something isn't working for you. After four weeks if you see no changes, switch to a different type of workout.”

Mansour cites one client who became frustrated when the workout regimen and food plan that helped her lose weight in her thirties wasn’t working in her fifties. But, in her fifties she was a lot more stressed, wasn’t sleeping well, was going through menopause, and was holding her weight indifferent areas, she says. When she replaced kickboxing with yoga (which helped her not only tone up, but lower her stress levels) she was able to lose 15 pounds.

“Instead of feeling pigeonholed into a certain workout plan, I encourage everyone to feel empowered to really be the president of their own workouts.”

Forget the ‘all or nothing’ mentality — look at each day as a series of choices

“The all or nothing approach does not serve you,” says Mansour, who says the majority of her clients suffer from this mentality. Either they start a diet or weight-loss program and are totally all in or they are totally off the wagon.

“With the holidays coming up, some people say ‘I’m going to start my weight-loss goals in January’ or ‘I’m going to start eating healthy after the holidays’ those are examples of the all or nothing mentality and that is self-sabotage,” she explains. “Very successful people tend to say ‘I’m all in or I’m all out.’ When we look at our health in that way it really sets us up to feel like we’re failing if were not hitting every single thing.”

People tend to say ‘I’m all in or I’m all out.’ When we look at our health in that way it really sets us up to feel like we’re failing.

We can all relate to falling victim to this at some point: Perhaps it was eating that piece of cake at the office party that sent your diet spiraling for the rest of the day (might as well order pizza for dinner if you already slipped up, right?). Or maybe you hit snooze one too many times and missed your spin class, so you just skipped working out altogether.

To combat this, Mansour advises us to reframe the way we think about our health, taking it from being an overarching long-term project that we must stay on top of all of the time to being individual opportunities to make a healthy choice. “I encourage my clients to go choice by choice. In one day, you have, say, 40 decisions related to your health to make. So if you choose to workout, that’s one. If you decide to workout longer than five minutes, that’s another. It’s choice after choice that builds on itself in that day. It’s not that you have to wait until the next day to start over. It’s all those individual choices.”

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