13 Exercise Motivation Tips to Help You Stick to a Workout Routine

This practical advice can help you crush your fitness goals.
13 Tips to Improve Your Exercise Motivation That Actually Work
Getty Images / Andressa Mora De Mora / EyeEm

There are so many things that can suck the life out of your exercise motivation, from a bed that’s beckoning extra cozily to a new episode drop of a series you’ve been streaming. While it’s more than okay to switch around your workout schedule to make room for impromptu sleep-ins, sometimes you do want to make time for movement simply because you know you’ll feel better when you’re done.

If you’ve been finding it difficult to stick to the routine you want, just know that you are definitely not alone.

It’s extremely common to wrestle with workout motivation, personal trainer Ann McArthur, CPT, Les Mills national trainer, tells SELF. One of the biggest reasons why? Put simply, exercise can often be hard, says McArthur, which means you won’t always be in the mood to get sweaty, breathless, and physically fatigued. “It’s hard to be motivated and excited for something that’s hard,” she says. 

Workout motivation can also wane when you don’t reach your fitness goals right off the bat. “People look for a quick fix sometimes,” says McArthur, but truth is, “routines take time to build.” So when you don’t run a 5K in a month or master the push-up in a matter of weeks, it can be a serious bummer that takes the wind out of your workout sails. 

What’s more, sometimes the stressors and grind of everyday life can make exercise feel like just another thing on your already too-long to-do list. After expending mental energy dealing with work and family obligations, the last thing a lot of us want to do is to expend physical energy, Ellen Thompson, CPT, area personal training manager with Blink Fitness, tells SELF.

Onto the good news: Despite all these valid roadblocks, it is possible to learn how to stay motivated to exercise, whether you’re into home workouts, in-person studio classes, or outdoor runs. We chatted with top fitness experts to glean the mental techniques they use to help clients stick to a workout routine and meet their fitness goals when they’re feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, or otherwise unmotivated. 

These hacks go beyond exercise motivation quotes and can actually help you build a lasting, healthy relationship with exercise, which is important if your goal is to work out for the long haul. Right this way for all your need to know! 

1. Focus on simply getting yourself to your workout.

Oftentimes, the hardest part about figuring out how to stick to a fitness routine is simply getting to a facility or space to actually exercise—and not the exercise itself, Kellen Scantlebury, DPT, CSCS, founder of Fit Club NY, tells SELF. “Just showing up is more than half the battle,” he says. So instead of worrying about the actual workout—how hard it may be, or how tired you think you’ll feel afterward—concern yourself with the sole logistical task of getting there. (And yes, making it to your home gym counts!)

“Once you are there, you will feel so much better just in the fact that you make the effort to get there,” says Scantlebury. This mini boost will more often than not give you the mental push to then start your workout.

2. Be patient and play the long game.

Many of us begin a new exercise program with the intention of reaching specific goals, and that’s great, since they can be important workout inspiration. (Here’s how to make sure you’re setting realistic fitness goals that are actually achievable.)

But that also means that any time you’re embarking on a new fitness routine, there’s often a frenzy to expect to reach these goals immediately, certified personal trainer Maryam Zadeh, CPT, founder of Brooklyn-based HIIT BOX, tells SELF. You put in hard work at the gym for a week and are then bummed when you can’t yet do a perfect push-up. In reality, though, depending on your current fitness level, perfecting that move may take weeks or even months of hard, consistent work. This disconnect between expectation and reality can be seriously demotivating.

A better approach is to acknowledge that lasting changes don’t come overnight, and that by being patient throughout the process and committing to follow through, you will see results in the long run. Remind yourself of this any time you start to feel antsy for those workout benefits. Good things take time, especially when it comes to fitness.

3. Ditch your all-or-nothing mindset.

The all-or-nothing approach to physical activity is common, Chicago-based personal trainer Stephanie Mansour, CPT, tells SELF. People either believe that they have to do a workout exactly how they imagined it—a full 60 minutes of cardio at 6 a.m., for example—and if any element of that plan falls apart (they wake up at 6:30 instead of 5:30, for instance), they’ll throw in the towel completely.

But having impossibly rigid standards doesn’t allow for any adaptation when life gets in the way. And it’s going to. When our too-high standards aren’t met, it leads to “a lot of discouragement and feeling overwhelmed,” explains Mansour.

So when things don’t go exactly as planned, instead of believing that you’ve blown your workout for the day, do as much as you can anyway—even if that’s only five or ten minutes, NYC-based certified strength and conditioning specialist Mike Clancy, CSCS, tells SELF. 

“Ten minutes is better than five, and five minutes is better than zero,” he explains. With this mindset, “It’s not about having a perfect workout every single time,” says Clancy. “It’s not a failure if you didn’t hit every target.” 

4. Enlist outside support.

Once you’ve hammered out some realistic goal setting, share it with someone, says Thompson—a friend, family member, coworker, neighbor, even all of Twitter if you want! The point is, sharing your exercise intentions with others can then help you stay accountable for actually following through on those goals. 

Additionally, by telling people your goals, they can often help you work toward them, says McArthur. Maybe your coworker will want to carpool to Tuesday night yoga,  perhaps your early-rising mom will give you pep talks before your morning workout or run, or maybe your next door neighbor will join you for at-home strength sessions. “Those are people who now know your goals,” says McArthur. “You can call them and get support on your bad days, and they can cheer you on on your good days.” And if they’re not into fitness themselves, maybe they have something else they’re working toward—and you can maintain a source of support for each other simply by checking in.

5. Accept that fact that you won’t always want to work out. And that’s totally normal.

Even the most motivated of exercisers will have days when they just really don’t want to hit the gym, NYC-based certified strength and conditioning specialist Mark DiSalvo, CSCS, tells SELF. On those days, avoid judging yourself or reading too much into the fact that you temporarily lost motivation to exercise. This nope-not-today is completely normal, adds Scantlebury, and understanding that up front can help you embrace those difficult feelings and move past them, rather than internalizing them or viewing them as signs of weakness.

6. Avoid making judgments about your day first thing in the morning.

Say you wake up after the weekend feeling stiff and lethargic. You remember you’ve signed up for a strength-training class that night and immediately begin dreading it. Your Monday workout motivation is totally shot. Yet instead of canceling it from your phone while still snuggled in bed, tell yourself that you’ll focus on simply getting through the work day and then reassess your workout plans when the time gets closer, says DiSalvo.

Maybe by the time 5:30 p.m. rolls around, you’ll be in the mood to release some of the day’s stress in your strength class. Or perhaps you’ll decide that strength training isn’t for you today, but you’ll want to stretch it out in yoga instead, or get in some light aerobic work on the elliptical. Or maybe, you’ll truly need a day off from the gym—and that’s totally fine too. 

The bottom line is that you can’t make general assumptions about your day before it has even started, and by refraining from these types of snap judgments, you’ll likely end up attending more exercise sessions than you miss. And you'll be glad you did.

7. Start with something easy.

Do a longer warm-up, suggests DiSalvo, and then slowly build from there—you definitely don’t want to jump into high-intensity work, especially if you’re feeling blah about it. If you want to run on the treadmill for 20 minutes, for example, tell yourself you’ll just do one minute to start, and then after completing that quick goal, reassess how you’re feeling. If you’re up for it, try another minute. From there, check in with yourself again and determine whether you want to keep going, or if you want to slow it down or pick up the pace. Continue this pattern to build confidence in your abilities and ease yourself into a workout.

8. Break your workout into smaller chunks.

Instead of focusing on the total time of your workout or an intimidatingly high amount of volume you’re hoping to accomplish, redirect your attention to getting through the next 30 seconds, says Zadeh. “You can get strong 30 seconds at a time,” she says, and this division will reduce your workout into more mentally manageable chunks so that you can stay present, focused, and motivated.

9. Choose your vocabulary wisely.

When thinking about your workout—whether beforehand or during—use words with positive versus negative associations to describe how you might feel or are feeling. As an example, instead of considering the difficult moments of an exercise class as being “uncomfortable,” think of them as being “intense,” suggests Zadeh, which carries a more empowering, can-do mindset while also acknowledging the difficulty involved. Shifting your vocab will help you adopt a more optimistic, I-can-do-it mentality that will power you through the tough parts.

10. Create a reward system for yourself.

On days when you’re really struggling with workout motivation, incentivize yourself with a mini reward system, suggests Mansour. Think of small ways to treat yourself—get a 10-minute neck massage, for example, or watch an episode of your favorite Netflix show—and cash in on those rewards when you stick with your routine for the day. 

11. Visualize your success.

Think about the goal you’re working toward: Then, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and visualize the moment that you reach it. Use your senses—sight, sound, touch—to visualize what exactly that moment will be like. Then, open your eyes and write down everything that came to mind, says Mansour. Maybe it’s hearing that mile-marker beep on your fitness watch when you run that goal distance for the first time without stopping, or feeling the grass underneath your feet as you stretch afterward.  Reference these notes often—daily, even—to help you maintain your exercise motivation. 

12. Focus on yourself, not others.

Don’t compare yourself to other gym-goers, says DiSalvo. It’s easy to watch someone bust out a set of single-leg deadlifts with ease, for example, and then feel discouraged over the fact that you can’t yet do one. But you’re likely not considering the fact that they too were new to single-leg deadlifts at one point, and probably put in a lot of hard work to get there. Plus, there are so many other factors that can constitute a person’s fitness level that an apples-to-apples comparison isn’t really possible.

So, rather than stacking yourself up against your fellow gym-goers or classmates—which can really mess with your mental health—shift your mindset to one that sees everyone as working together and striving toward the same goal: health and fitness, however each of us defines that.

13. Remember your why.

When you’re really struggling to muster up exercise motivation, try to recall why you wanted to start a workout routine in the first place. Was it to run a 5K with your friends? To bust out a double-digit set of bodyweight squats? Master a barbell deadlift? Or simply build the stamina you need to play with your kids? 

Whatever the reason, remembering and focusing on your “why” can be “such a powerful tool” to keep you motivated, says McArthur, especially when you’d really rather not attend that 6 a.m. group fitness class or post-work Zoom yoga session. To keep your “why” top of mind, consider writing it down and placing it in an easy-to-spot location (like your bathroom mirror, for instance) so that you have a visual reminder of what your exercise routine is ultimately all about. Or, take a cue from one of McArthur’s clients, who carries her why on a sticky note in her pocket.

By focusing on your why—and on the other motivation-sparking tips above—you can help make your intended workout program your attainable one. But even if you know what exactly works to stoke your workout fire, sometimes pushing through to exercise is not going to be the best option. There are true benefits to taking a rest day, whether it’s scheduled or spur-of-the-moment. Here’s how to tell if that’s what your body’s asking for instead!