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Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. Headshot

Exercise Motivation: 6 Tips You've Never Heard Of

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The most popular day to exercise is "tomorrow."

To pump up your motivation, we know the classic tips: find a workout partner so you're accountable, make your intentions known so you feel social pressure, set a deadline like running a 5K or your 20th reunion. Now, it's not to say that these tips don't work. They do. It's just that we've heard them before.

So how about six tips you've never heard of? For all of us whose favorite curls are the cheese kind, here are six ways to get a running start.

Tip #1: Remember a good exercise experience.
A brand-new, 2014 study found that you can use memory to enhance motivation. Study participants who described a positive exercise memory were not only more motivated to exercise, they actually exercised more over the next week than those who weren't prompted to remember. So stash your medal from the 5K when you ran your personal record with your exercise clothes, pack your power walking playlist with songs from the wedding where you danced all night, or tape a picture of the view from the summit of your favorite hike next to your boots. The good memories may pave the way to a good sweat.

Tip #2: Don't aim to "exercise;" instead, play a sport.
A 2005 study found that when participants were asked about reasons for playing a sport, they thought of intrinsic reasons, like enjoyment and challenge. Reasons to "exercise," however, were extrinsic and focused on things like appearance, weight, and stress management.

Psychology 101 will tell you that intrinsic motivation makes you more likely to start and stick with a new habit. So sign up for softball, join the masters' swim team, play ultimate Frisbee, or simply tweak your mindset: your Saturday afternoon bike ride suddenly becomes the sport of cycling.

Tip #3: Don't work out next to the fittest person at the gym.
A creative 2007 study examined how your fellow gym-goers affect your workout. Researchers hung out around the lateral pull-down machine at a college gym. When a woman started using it, a super-fit female confederate started using the next machine over. Half the time, she wore a tank top and shorts. The other half of the time, she wore pants with extra thigh padding and a baggy sweatshirt. In a third control condition, the confederate didn't work out at all.

What happened? Women working out next to the tank top used their machine for a shorter amount of time than the other two conditions. And, when researchers later approached and asked women to take a short survey, they reported lower body satisfaction. By contrast, women working out next to the baggy sweatshirt exercised longer and didn't suffer the same hit to body image.

What does this mean for women? Run on a treadmill behind a 19-year-old in size 0 booty shorts and you'll probably leave sooner and feel bad about yourself. Run on a treadmill behind a average-looking person and you'll likely leave after a good workout with your body image intact.

Tip #4: Don't motivate yourself by thinking about your muffin top or flabby abs.
Yes, you heard that right. Both men and women often motivate themselves to exercise by thinking about their appearance. But it turns out this approach backfires.

A 2014 study found that frequent exercise goes along with a positive body image, which was defined as appreciating one's body, focusing on how it feels, and being satisfied with what it can do. Makes sense so far. But, for gym bunnies whose main goal was just to look hot, all three components of positive body image weakened no matter how much they exercised. The take home? Consider changing your focus to something other than your thighs or tummy.

Tip #5: Customize your workout in little ways.
The power of small choices was demonstrated in a brand new 2014 study where participants who chose the sequence of their exercises did more sets and reps than those who were given a predetermined sequence. So don't just slavishly follow the order on your lifting log or go down the line of weight machines. Think about what you want to do and you just may find yourself doing more.

Tip #6: Stop thinking of yourself as lazy.
Think of yourself as someone who exercises, or someone who is healthy, or whatever exercise-friendly identity you'd like to adopt. The human psyche goes to great lengths, sometimes unconsciously, to be consistent with one's identity. So thinking of yourself as a harried, stressed-out person creates a self-fulfilling prophecy with little room for exercise. But thinking of yourself as a really busy healthy person might create just the tweak your mindset needs.

So even if you're someone who thinks running late counts as exercise, try out your favorite of these six tips. We'll be on our way to being healthier before we can lift another cheese curl.

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen hosts the weekly Savvy Psychologist podcast on iTunes.

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