Some days it’s difficult to get off the couch. These mental tricks will help you stay motivated to exercise and stick with your workout routine.

I think a lot of people who stop working out think that for people who are able to sustain good weekly workout regimens it’s somehow just easier, like the devoted don’t have to battle the inertia factor. Not true. I’ve found the workout inertia factor never goes away, so I have had to develop an array of mental tricks and sayings to keep myself on track during my lifetime of sticking with it.

The most perplexing thing about fitness is you’d think evolution would have made it so we are driven to be fit, that our minds and bodies would say, “Oh, I can’t wait to get in there and exercise!” Because, of course, doing so increases our health, our happiness, our over overall sense of well-being, and in theory our longevity—and evolution is about all that, right?

But instead, our minds and bodies say, “Oh man, I just don’t want to workout today.” And “today” means basically every single day. I don’t know why this is, but I think understanding that “inertia is forever” is really key to heading down the workout path. The inertia hump never goes away, but likewise, it is completely surmountable. Once you actually start the workout, inertia disappears. You are over the hump for that day. You have triumphed over the inertia hump! Vanquished it! You feel awesome! Next day, the inertia hump will be back—always. And since you are now prepared for it, you are ready to triumph over it once more.

These workout tips are fundamentally about overcoming the inertia hump.

  1. Never use the fact that you missed some workouts as an excuse to not workout. (That is, never say to yourself, “Well, screw it, I haven’t worked out for two weeks, so what’s the point—I’ll just quit.”) This is one of the single most important tips. Viewing your workout as a lifelong practice, not as a temporary thing to “get in shape” helps with this.
  1. Set a weekly goal for number of workouts and keep it in your mind as you map out your calendar. Say you want to workout four times a week. By Thursday night, if you’ve only worked out once, you know you have to workout three more times by Saturday at midnight—you have to. So make it a week-by-week goal so you can easily assess if you hit it. One mental trick that worked for me here is if I knew I had to workout to meet my weekly goal, but I really didn’t want to, I’d project myself to the coming Sunday and look back on the week and think how I’d feel saying, “I hit all my workouts” vs “I only got in three.” I dunno, for some reason, that was compelling for me, and it pushed me to many workouts I would have otherwise skipped, and the inertia hump would have prevailed. In talking with others I know who have made fitness a part of their lives, this idea of a week-by-week goal that starts anew each Sunday night is a shared idea.
  1. Set a low bar to trick your brain. I had a requirement. On days I really didn’t want to workout I said to myself, “You have to at least get dressed and stretch out.” That was a low bar that I could fool my inertia-laden brain with. Once I was dressed and stretched out, I virtually always did the workout. (This is a big one.)
  1. Another low bar trick. I found that during times when I did fall off the workout wagon, it really helped to set a very low bar to get started again, even a ridiculously low bar. So I’d say, just 5 minutes on the Nordic Track, or heck, even 1 minute. And then I’d move it up from there, but slowly. Easy, low bar, so you can get over that inertia hump and get the habit re-established. An important point here: once you are on the low bar restart, just stick to your 5 minutes or whatever your low bar is that first time back because you want it to seem easy so you are left with a positive feeling about it.
  1. Understand that fitness is about living every single day in a more elevated, happier state. Like that old Sting song, “every breath you take, every move you make.” Fitness is not about delayed gratification, it’s about instant gratification—feeling good and strong as you move through your day, as you move through each moment of your life. So, it’s not about adding a few years to your life, like living till 84 instead of 81. Sure, that might happen, but it might not. Either way, that’s not the main point, not even remotely the main point.
  1. Know that other stuff in your life will not get done or will have to be set aside because your workout is now taking up time in your day. This is really, really important. You have to admit this up front or else it will be a constant source of frustration. Let the dishes set a bit, let the house clutter remain a bit. Get okay with it. You know you will get to those things—I mean, you have to do the dishes at some point, right? But once you miss your workout for the day, that opportunity is lost forever.
  1. Know that your workouts might be inconvenient for other people. You might show up late for a party, get dinner on the table a little later, maybe skip an event all together. So what. Your workout has to take precedence in your day. If you view your workout as an option, the thing that gets done when you have the time, if you have the time, the last thing on your list, it will not happen. I guarantee it 100%. Fail.
  1. Make a point to focus on the good feeling you get from working out, like remind yourself how good you feel multiple times during the day or evening. Reward yourself with compliments. “I worked out; I feel great.” That will help overcome the inertia hump when it returns (which it will, guaranteed) the very next time you work out.
  1. Sometimes, allow yourself to think long term. When I was a young dad, I thought, I want to stay strong so when my kids are older, I can do things I love but that take a certain amount of fitness to pull off, like backcountry trips. Now I’m 57 and I still do backcountry trips by canoe and backpack with my grown children—a hugely rewarding thing for me. Lots of positives to remaining fit.

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Photo(s) by Jeff Smith