It's no secret that sticking to a workout routine takes commitment. But how much of that commitment involves planning ahead? A September 2019 study published in Psychological Science helps answer that question. Researchers examined the relationship between a person's "planfulness" and their gym visits.
Using a Planfulness Scale they developed in a previous study, the researchers had participants rate themselves on characteristics like "developing a clear plan when I have a goal [that] is important to me." Participants also wrote down their exercise goals and had their gym visits tracked over a 20-week period, including several weeks before the study began.
The result? People with high planfulness scores visited the gym more often, especially after setting their exercise goal. But lead author Rita Ludwig says it's important not to get prescriptive about planfulness. Her study shows correlation, not causation, and there's plenty people can do to improve their stick-to-itiveness — whether they're natural planners or not.
Evaluate Past Attempts
The first step Ludwig recommends is self-reflection. "It's not so much writing out every single step of your workout [and] setting a final date for your goal achievement," she says.
"It's more like taking the space to really introspect for yourself about things that you know have worked for you in the past, things that haven't worked in the past, and maybe why they haven't worked." For example, if you know you hate calendar alerts or always snooze alarms, try another approach.
Play a Game of If... Then...
One Ludwig suggests is a cognitive strategy psychologists call "implementation intentions." "The idea is that you create these little if-then statements to root your behaviors in your future goals and automate your behavior," she says.
So if I want to exercise after work, she says, then I pack my gym bag and bring it to the office. Having the bag right there can make hitting the gym seem easier and become a habit.
Visualize Both Success and Failure
Another strategy is mental contrasting. The contrast is between the good feeling produced by imagining yourself achieving a goal and the despondence you may feel over not yet having reached it.
Just dwelling on the good feeling can leave you stranded in fantasy land without taking action. And dwelling on the bad feeling just demoralizes you. But if you integrate the two, the uplifting feeling will buoy you through the hard work of goal pursuit.
Set the Bar Low
"One of the goals I use with my clients is setting a minimum of days," says Jess Cifelli, a CycleBar instructor and NASM-certified personal trainer. She has them pick a realistic number of workouts per week and commit to it. A number, she emphasizes, not a range like two to three or three to five. Nothing wrong with exceeding the minimum, but no pressure to. Her most successful clients are the ones who set smaller goals.
Tap Into Wearable Technology
Daniel Williams, a Row House coach and ACE-certified personal trainer, encourages people to use wearable technology to help plan and stick to a workout routine. Gym-goers want to see measurable data after their workout, he says, and wearable devices let them track calories, speed, steps and more.
Developing goals around this data, such as a number of calories to burn or a heart rate to reach, can motivate people. And seeing yourself make progress week after week can also encourage you to keep going. So can just setting a workout reminder on your device, he says.
Focus on Facebook Over Instagram
Another tech resource is social media, but be careful. Both Williams and Cifelli warn against blindly following Instagram fitness influencers. Many are models blessed with good genes whose ability to get results at the gym may not mirror your own, Williams says.
And if you just can't quit the 'Gram, Cifelli urges people to research an exercise trend before adopting it. "Do a little background history and save yourself an injury," she tells her clients. Not everyone on social media is a certified trainer with their followers' best interest at heart.
However, Cifelli sees merit in exercise support groups on Facebook. They function as forums where people post workout results, air their frustrations and get pep talks from fellow members. These groups are especially popular in the CrossFit and power-lifting communities, she says.
Pack for a 6-Pack
Williams takes Ludwig's bring-your-gym-bag-to-work suggestion one step further. Lay out your workout clothes the night before, he says. "That alone is going to prevent someone from talking themself out of working out because they didn't have anything to wear," he says.
Maybe you've heard this advice before, but have you actually put it into practice? "It's really elementary, but it's actually a bigger task than people realize." Instead of rifling through your dresser to find a pair of athletic shorts or forgetting about them altogether in the morning rush, save yourself time and set the right tone for your workout by having them ready to go.
Book a Group Workout Class
Taking a class can motivate you in several ways. One, you get the chance to find an activity you enjoy, whether dance, kickboxing or water aerobics. Two, a class can become a community. "Where a lot of people fall off is when they try to do everything on their own," Cifelli says. But in a class, "you become part of the family, and when somebody's gone or traveling, you're missed."
Three, if you pre-register, what you've paid can irk you into going. "If I schedule a Soul Cycle class, I'm going to keep myself accountable because it's $32 for 45 minutes," says Kate Cummins, PsyD, a licensed psychologist who works with athletes. Try an app like ClassPass to find new and fun workouts near you.
Get Things Cookin’
Exercise and nutrition form a two-way street, says Kasey Kotarak, a Fit Body Boot Camp coach and NASM-certified personal trainer. That's why she recommends planning and preparing meals.
"When you are eating healthy prepared meals each day, it will motivate you to work out and stick to your routine," she says. "It goes both ways. When you are working hard in the gym every day, you will want to continue those healthy habits with your nutrition."
Take It Easy
Don't be afraid to give yourself breaks, Ludwig says. "If you have a period of time where you're not currently making progress toward your goal or you even backslide a little bit, that's OK." As long as you've committed to a long-term program and actively pursue it, you're fine.
When you do hit a goal, celebrate! Kotarak advocates a self-care reward system to stay motivated. "Reward yourself with a new outfit for the gym, or one hour of time for you, whether it is watching your favorite TV show or just an hour to yourself," she says.
Write It Down and Keep It Visible
When all else fails, go old school and write out your goals and your plan to get there. And don't be afraid to get very, very specific. Research from author and leadership expert Mark Murphy found that people who describe or picture their goals in great detail are 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to reach their goals.
Grab a planner like the fitness-focused ones from Fitlosophy, so you can write down a plan up to 12 weeks long, then follow along day by day until you reach your goal.