How many times have you thought to yourself, “I need to start working out,” without doing anything about it? There are just too many tempting excuses out there—the couch beckons, you just washed your hair, your sports bras are all dirty, or you just…don’t feel like it. And it’s challenging to know where or how to even start, especially if you’ve never really had a workout plan or have let physical activity fall by the wayside. But you’re far from alone—and it’s never too late to begin!
The struggle is real, agrees fitness trainer Kayla Itsines, co-founder and head trainer of Sweat, the health and fitness app, who hears it often from her millions of Instagram followers and workout devotees. To start working out and really stick with exercise, make it a habit instead of relying on motivation. Motivation changes over time, Itsines says, but a habit will never let you down: “Habits help you push forward even when you have low motivation.”
Another big mental barrier for people is that it takes a little patience to get going. Getting to a point where working out is as much a part of your routine as combing your hair can take about two months, says Sandy Joy Weston, M. Ed., an exercise physiologist and the author of My 30-Day Reset Journal. The secret is repetition plus consistent timing and cues, she says. Here’s why: The brain creates neural connections when you do something, and with each repetition, the connections get stronger and the action takes less effort.
The trickiest part, of course, is taking that first step. To get you finally up and moving, we asked fitness experts and psychologists for their best-ever advice on how to start (and keep) working out, whether you’re just beginning or getting back into it after a lull. With a little patience and determination, you’ll be working up a healthy sweat in no time. Your body and mind will thank you.
So you haven’t lifted a weight since last year? Give yourself a break. “People want to go back to where they were with their fitness a few months ago, but they can’t,” says Liz Josefsberg, CPT, a health coach and expert and a former director of brand advocacy for WW. The first week or so that you’re easing back into exercising, start small. Know that any movement is good movement. Commit to doing 10 minutes of a workout video or walking for exercise three days that week. “This will help you establish behaviors and create the habit you want to have in place,” she says.
The smaller and more realistic the goal, the more likely you are to be successful at it; and the more successful you are, the more like you are to keep doing it, explains clinical psychologist Dayna Lee-Baggley, PhD, assistant professor at Dalhousie University.
The first week you intend to exercise, look ahead at your schedule and establish modest changes to it. On Sunday night, commit to getting your exercise clothes out for the next day and then setting your alarm to wake up 30 minutes earlier on Monday. “Set the bar low with new behavior modifications in order to make changes that’ll last,” Josefsberg suggests. She doesn’t even recommend exercising that first Monday: Just prep the night before and wake up earlier. Then on Tuesday morning, slip on those exercise clothes and do something small and achievable, whatever that means to you.
Make new habits.
If you can nail down a few fitness habits—whether that’s getting up a few mornings a week or even showing up to the gym when you don’t feel like it—you’re more likely to be successful. “Habit is 75 percent of the challenge with exercise,” says Sydney-based exercise physiologist Bill Sukala. Once your mental game is on point and established, the physical aspect of following through with your intentions will be easier, he says.
“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.”
“You can’t say, ‘Maybe I’ll go for a run tomorrow’ and expect yourself to follow through,” says Itsines. “Create a plan for how you’ll achieve that goal.” Get granular: Check the weather for the morning, prep the coffee, lay out 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.
Overcome your fear of the gym.
The gym can be an intimidating place for anyone, and if you’re out of shape or just inexperienced it’s natural to worry that others are judging you. The truth really is, most of the time, people are zoned in on themselves. People at all levels of fitness go to the gym, and we bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised to notice tons of folks walking on the treadmill, lifting light weights, and keeping things simple. And you’re not judging them, right?
Start on the cardio machines to build up your comfort level, bring some weights to a quiet area, or see if you can work with a personal trainer a few times so they can show you the ropes.
And the great news? It’s never been easier to workout from home, thanks to tons of top-notch fitness streaming platforms, videos, and apps. So if going to the gym is your main deterrent, know you have a lot of fantastic options (no more excuses!).
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Here’s the reality of any journey, whether it’s business, relationships, or fitness—you’re going to make mistakes and stumble along the way. Instead of using it as an excuse to give up, the most important thing you can do is forgive yourself for slipups.
“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 Lee-Baggley. Don’t ruminate or self-flagellate; just identify the issue, find a way to prevent it in the future, move on, and get back to work.
Find some buddies.
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. If you don’t actually prefer to exercise with others, involve loved ones by asking them to keep you accountable, cheer you on, and help log your progress.
Be ready for week three.
Between week three and week four is often when people give up on their resolutions, says Josefsberg. You could fall prey to this whenever you start your fitness journey. “Start this journey knowing you’re going to be tempted to drop your routine during that ‘red flag’ time and reward yourself so you’ll be inspired to keep going,” she says. “Get through that time when your motivation starts to wane and you’ll come out on the other side with your behaviors even more ingrained in those healthy habits.”
Track your progress.
In order to track your progress, some people find it helpful to identify their personal starting point and then define their fitness goals. One way to do this is to write down daily or weekly observations and notes in a fitness journal. What workouts were you able to do, and how did you feel? You’ll have a written record of your steady progress.
For a more data-based method of tracking, invest in a smart watch or fitness tracker (if you don’t already have one) to track your heart rate. Heart rate can be an indicator of fitness level, according to the American Heart Association, and knowing yours can be a good way to track the health of your heart. Active people often have a lower resting heart rate because their heart muscle is in better condition, so you may see your resting heart rate go down as you move from a low or moderate amount of physical activity to a high amount.
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Internalize the many health benefits.
Exercise for the health benefits that aren’t related to the scale, such as feeling more energized, stronger, happier, and calmer, and experiencing better sleep. “I think it can become punishing when you think of exercise in terms of weight loss, especially when you’re starting out,” Josefsberg says. “I would suggest divorcing the terms ‘weight loss’ and ‘exercise’ from one another.”
When you don’t feel like exercising, remind yourself of how good you’ll feel during or after exercise, Sukala says. “If you can begin to associate being active with pleasure and how good you feel as a result of it, you’ll be more inclined to stick to your exercise routine.”
Build in a reward.
The combination of a cue (say, a morning alarm) and a reward (a post-workout espresso) helps exercise become and stay a habit, according to a study in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology. 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, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University. “You’ll want to exercise.”
Customize a playlist that makes you want to move.
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. “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.”
Find something you enjoy.
Fitness experts and doctors alike often say the best exercise is the one you enjoy and will keep doing. If you hate boot camp workouts or can’t see yourself making a weekly commitment to yoga, move on to something you’ll look forward to showing up for. That workout could be a dance class, kick-boxing, ballet-inspired barre workouts, long bike rides, rock climbing, or walking with friends. You want to make this experience as pleasant as possible. “Take an inventory of what needs to happen in your life to make this time that you’re starting an exercise program very, very different from the last time you tried and quit,” Josefsberg says.
Do it for yourself.
“If you made a promise to anyone else in your life—your partner, child, boss, or friend—you might want to stick to it, but because it’s you and because you can somehow always negotiate with yourself, you might not stick to your commitment,” Josefsberg says. If you hit snooze a few times one morning and skipped your early workout, find time to get those 30 minutes in later in the day. Hold yourself accountable. Treat the fitness and health commitments you make for yourself like you would your job, family, and friendships. You wouldn’t let important people in your life who are counting on you down, so why do it to yourself?