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6 science-based secrets to staying motivated at the gym

Get your workout mojo back with these proven methods of motivation.
Spain, Gijon, legs of sportive young woman on path
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. How much are you getting? Westend61 / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

Your 5:00 am alarm sounds, and instead of popping up for that morning sweat sesh, something else takes over your body and mind. You're entering the workout spin zone — those 60 seconds where you side-eye your gym bag and then start to justify why you absolutely don't need to get your butt to the gym today. Where did all of your motivation go from the night before?

It’s currently recommended that Americans get in at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week (that's about 20 minutes a day), but in reality, about half of American adults are falling short of this goal. Could it be that some internal, demotivating dialogue has killed our fitness mojo?

Inspirational quotes are a good place to rekindle our fitness commitment, and music can be a melodic path to getting into a fitness groove. Keep them both in your back pocket when you need a mantra or song to get you through those last reps. But there are other proven methods to help get you fired up in the first place, says Deborah Feltz, PhD, a distinguished professor of Kinesiology at Michigan State University and author of numerous fitness studies.

Make your workout routine a habit with these six science- and expert-backed ways to get (and stay) motivated for the long haul.

1: Your Hard-and-Fast Rules Were Made to Be Broken

One big hurdle to jump over is to not give yourself hard or set rules, like “I have to start my workout program on a Monday or else I can’t do it.”

“Doing this makes it easy to talk yourself out of something,” says Feltz. And if you just set yourself up even just for something very small, like just getting in a walk (even if it’s not Monday), you’re more likely to say ‘This feels good, I think I can spare more time.’”

2. A Little Friendly Competition Can Light a Fire

Whether you’re looking to take home first place or just want to go faster than the person next to you on the treadmill, friendly competition has some major boosting power.

Even if you're not a competitive person by nature, Feltz suggests finding an individual or group that is slightly better or faster than you. “It can be helpful in terms of either a little bit of competition or just in terms of what we call a conjunctive task,” she says. “It’s a team effort, but the performance depends on whoever is quitting first.” In other words, nobody likes a quitter, even you.

3. Find a Friend Who Won't Let You Off the Hook

Some people prefer solo workouts (more power to them!), but for those that need a little push in the motivation department, scheduling regular workouts with a buddy or group can make all the difference. You're less likely to hit snooze or head home for the night if you know you're leaving your workout partner in the lurch.

“We do know that just to get out there and to exercise, having other people or being part of a group can help get you off the couch,” says Feltz.

It can also get you excited about your fitness journey again.

“Having other people around me with those same goals is always exciting,” says Diana Mitrea, an ACE-certified personal trainer in New York City and co-founder of Stronger With Time. “We’re all talking about the right things and pushing each other and we celebrate their victories as well as mine.”

Even having a supportive partner, family member or friend can be motivating. If you announce you’ll be participating in an upcoming race, you’ll be less likely to slack off training if you know they’ll be there to cheer you on.

4. Stop Making Exercise About How You Look

"The moment I stopped working out for my physical appearance I became more motivated," Mitrea says. "When exercise is all about the way you look, and you fall short of your expectations a few times, you end up just giving up."

Instead of focusing on bigger, more elusive goals (hey, six-pack abs), try setting micro goals that'll help you celebrate smaller victories along the way, like losing 5% of your body weight, nailing a push-up for the first time or running one mile without stopping.

“You should feel amazing about these accomplishments and you should tell someone — an instructor or friend — and be proud and loud,” says Mitrea.

5. Double Tap or Tag Your Friends on Social to Boost Your Fitness Game

Social media can be extremely overwhelming at times (hello, unicorn everything), but it’s a good lever to get some fitness motivation and some social platforms can even help you lose weight!

Healthy social competition and support on social media platforms motivates people to get out and workout more, according to a 2015 report from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication.

“Use social media to hold yourself accountable and help you stay on track and support one another,” says Mitrea. “The main thing is to be thoughtful about goals and who you have as guiding force and motivation — your friends should be excited about same things as you are.”

6. Make a Bet on Exercise and You'll Win Twice

Okay, so the health benefits of exercise aren't enough to rouse you out of bed at the crack of dawn, but if part of your paycheck is on the line, there’s no way you’re going to miss that workout, right?

Fitness accountability apps, like PACT and Diet Bet, allow participants to set a goal, and if it doesn’t get met, the participant has to part with cold hard cash. And because the payout is attached to your bank account, the idea of backing out is a lot less tempting. On the flip side, if you do meet your goal, you'll win it all back and then some! And it's not just a clever gimmick — a study in the medical journal JAMA found that dieters with a financial incentive were more likely to eat right, exercise and lose weight.

See you tomorrow, 5:00 am?

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