Sure, working out is good for us, but what if we’re just not in the mood? As in, totally not in the mood. Is there hope?
Yes. Research shows that even our most slothful selves can get active, stick with the program, and (shocker) enjoy it.
The key is reframing how we think about physical activity. Fitness is usually sold to us as something that will help us live longer and reduce our risk of chronic disease. While this is true and great, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily motivate us in the moment to do push-ups instead of downing Doritos. These four approaches work better.
#1 Ask: What will it do for me right now?
Immediate benefits—like relaxation, joy, stress relief, and sharp thinking—are far more motivating than the distant prospect of better health, according to behavioral scientists.
Identify the immediate perks
Those perks include a better mood, increased energy, a brainpower boost, stress relief, sharper focus, and positive feelings for yourself.
“I know that even though I never want to start a workout, once I’ve finished, I feel happy and empowered.”
—Onyx B., second-year undergraduate, Colorado College
“Realize life is short and you might as well spend it feeling good and alive.”
—Ethan G., second-year undergraduate, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
“Helping people identify the ways they feel better immediately is the true driver of our decision to be active,” says Dr. Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. “Research shows that we are more motivated by rewards that we immediately experience than by ones we have to wait for in the future.”
“I’ll remember the time I was in a dull meeting and had to run outside to grab something, then how much more alert I felt afterward.”
—Jerome G., third-year undergraduate, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York
“When I’m not in the mood to get active, I motivate myself by listening to workout music. I steadily start to get pumped up.”
—Steven M., third-year undergraduate, Michigan Technology University
“Running is like therapy to me. I am able to clear my mind of negative thoughts and I also feel better when I’m done. I breathe more smoothly and am more relaxed.”
—Jessica R., fourth-year undergraduate, Illinois State University
#2 Mind trick: “This isn’t about fitness”
Some physical activities don’t feel like exercise, especially when you’re doing something you can get lost in and actually enjoy. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, many students described fitness as a mind game.
Lose the rules
“Toss out any rules you might have about how to exercise, because research shows you won’t keep it up [if those rules don’t reflect your feelings],” says Dr. Segar.
Give yourself permission
Move in ways that feel good to you and work with your schedule. “If all you can fit in is an extra five minutes a day, make that your plan and go from there,” says Dr. Segar.
“I trick myself into thinking I am just having fun. Definitely go on a walk through the woods, or four-wheeling, swimming, or even climbing trees!”
—Lexie G., second-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin-Platteville
“I just ride my bike as transportation. That way, there is no choice. If you want to go somewhere, you have to be active.”
—Jonathan K., fifth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon
“When someone hates exercise, I’ve found that they hate it most often because they are [participating] in activities they don’t like, at higher intensities [than they like], or in places they don’t like,” says Dr. Segar. What works? Doing stuff you like, at a pace you like, in places you like.
“Walking to a nice (and far away) park or waterfront to read.”
—Elif Su C., fifth-year undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland
“Treat yourself to something special. Take a ride to the beach to watch the sunset. Take the kayak out somewhere you’ve never been to and experience something new. Maybe even catch a fish for dinner.”
—Matthew C., fifth-year undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California
“Sometimes I actively think about how much I don’t want to go for a run while I put my body mindlessly through the actions of starting anyway. I let my mind think it’s talked me out of it, but I keep putting on my shoes and shorts. I might even still be thinking about excuses when I take my first few steps into a warm-up jog, but by then it’s too late and I’ve already started.”
—Onyx B., second-year undergraduate, Colorado College
#3 Claim a tangible reward
Try associating fitness with a tangible reward. Again, this gets to those immediate benefits. If you’re someone who is motivated to avoid penalties, use that too.
Set a goal and relish the reward
Maybe it’s only at the gym that you can watch cable TV. Maybe you get a smoothie afterward.
Consider a commitment contract:
“For example, you give money to a friend. If you hit your exercise target, you get the money back, but if you don’t, your friend gets to keep it,” says Dr. Fred Zimmerman, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches exercise behavior. “Or the money would be donated to the opposite political party than [with] which you agree or a group you’re not too fond of. This way, missing your goal is painful.”
“I make it a rule that I can only watch a TV show if I’m working out. So if I want to know what’s happening on [the show], I have to be running.”
—Andi L., second-year undergraduate, University of Kansas
“Things that will get me outside start slow and result in physical activity as well as relaxation. I will get a big glass of iced tea and shoot horseshoes or play cornhole.”
—Sterling R., fourth-year undergraduate, Upper Iowa University
The free goal-setting platform StickK leverages the power of incentives and accountability; its creators (Yale researchers) say it more than triples your chances of success.
But be self-aware about your reward system—e.g., “Watch the revolving door effect if food becomes a reward for exercise,” says Beth Blackett, peer health outreach coordinator at Queen’s University in Ontario.
“Listen to an audiobook, but only while exercising. Hearing how a story ends is motivating to exercise.”
—Chris P., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Kansas
“The hardest thing to do for me is to work out in the morning. So I would make a rule that if I don’t get out of bed to work out, then I only get to drink water the entire day. Yes, no coffee. :(”
—Second-year undergraduate, name and college withheld
“As humans, we love a good prize, so motivate yourself to be active by setting up an award for yourself afterwards, like getting your nails done or watching a movie.”
—Maggie K., second-year undergraduate, Concordia College, Minnesota
#4 Hang out with your fit friends
“If our friends work out regularly and support our exercise goals, we are more likely to exercise,” says Dr. Xiaomeng Xu, professor of psychology at Idaho State University. Working out in a pair, team, or group introduces cues to action, accountability, and reward.
Make a plan with a friend
“Just the other day, I didn’t want to go run, but I had told my friend that I would run with him. Once I made that commitment, I knew that I was going to do it no matter what. I hate backing out.”
—Camden S., fifth-year undergraduate, Midwestern State University, Texas
“It’s a lot easier to get off the couch if you know your friends are waiting for you to go on a hike with them!”
—Kelly W., third-year undergraduate, University of Dallas, Texas
Watch other people being active
If your real-life friends aren’t active, then watch people being active on TV or online. In our survey, students said they were motivated by images on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.
In a 2013 study involving 480 college students, “having an exercise partner” and “having a friend who exercises” were rated among the top motivators for physical activity (along with wanting to look physically fit), according to the Archives of Exercise in Health and Disease.
“I committed to a softball team. I cannot let others down.”
—Elizabeth D., fourth-year undergraduate, Empire State College, New York
“I look on Instagram and see all my friends posting about working out.”
—Michelle F., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage
“I watch ‘People Are Awesome’ videos on YouTube of all the great things people do around the world, usually related to sports and adventure. I get really energetic and excited to get up and try new things.”
—Rajeev I., fourth-year undergraduate, Drexel University, Pennsylvania
“Texting someone about how you’re doubting going to the gym; you invite him or her, and if they say yes, then you have to go. A gym buddy helps.”
—Josie R., fifth-year undergraduate, California State University, Fresno
More ways to make it social
Join an intramural team—maybe dodgeball, softball, or bowling.
Shake it out
Find a dance class: hip hop, Zumba®, African, breakdancing, Bollywood—whatever gets you most excited to move.
Conquer life’s obstacles
Does belly crawling through mud sound like your idea of a good time? No? All the more reason to try it. The beginner’s version, a Spartan Sprint, is about three miles long and has more than 20 obstacles (think fire pits and barbed wire). By the end of the course, your new muddy look will be all over Instagram.
Walk it out
Walk with a group or on your own. Pass the time by downloading your favorite podcast or audiobook, or chatting with a friend.
Beth Blackett, MA, peer health outreach coordinator, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.
Kenneth Clark, certified personal trainer and small group instructor, Washington, DC.
Michelle Segar, PhD, MHP, director, Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center, University of Michigan; author, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness.
Xiaomeng Xu, PhD, professor of psychology, Idaho State University.
Fred Zimmerman, PhD, professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, University of California Los Angeles.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.). Exercise for stress and anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, May 19). Adolescent and school health: Physical activity facts. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/physicalactivity/facts.htm
Centola, D. (2013). Social media and the science of health behavior. Circulation, 127(21), 2135–2144. Retrieved from http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/127/21/2135.full.pdf+html
Darlow, S. D., & Xu, X. (2011). The influence of close others’ exercise habits and perceived social support on exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 12(5), 575–578.
Harvard Health Publications. (2013, May). Regular exercise releases brain chemicals key for memory, concentration, and mental sharpness. Harvard Men’s Health Watch. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/regular-exercise-releases-brain-chemicals-key-for-memory-concentration-and-mental-sharpness
King, K. A., Vidourek, R. A., English, L., & Merianos, A.L. (2014). Vigorous physical activity among college students: Using the health belief model to assess involvement and social support. Archives of Exercise Health and Disease, 4(2), 267–279.
Michellesegar.com. (n.d.). Sustainable behavior change for organizations, professionals, and app developers. Retrieved from http://michellesegar.com/organizations/
Student Health 101 survey, July 2015.
Zimmerman, F. J. (2009). Using behavioral economics to promote physical activity. Preventive Medicine, 49(4), 289–291.