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From skipping exercise sessions to sticking to your training regime, if you’re wondering how to motivate yourself to workout, here’s how to keep moving as the days get shorter

Lost motivation to workout? As the leaves start to fall, your motivation to get out and exercise can also take a nosedive. Studies show that on average each workout is eight minutes shorter during the cooler months. However, a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that cold weather workouts could burn more calories compared to those done in warm weather – even more reason to stay motivated to workout during autumn and winter.

But while many of us spend decades trying to figure out what drives people to repeatedly lace up their trainers in the dark and cold days of autumn, according to Dr Emma Ross, a sports scientist specialising in female health at The Well, teaching yourself how to be motivated to workout isn’t as complicated as you’d think.

“Exercise has to be tied to a purpose. If you haven’t found that purpose then you won’t do it,” she explains. “It’s easy to let barriers such as logistics of time and body confidence get in the way of getting out there. Once you’ve found the ‘why’ it’s much easier to form an exercise habit and make it something you prioritise.”

Whether it’s finding time for yourself in the morning, staying late in the office or your menstrual cycle getting in the way of your workout, here’s what you need to know about how to find motivation to get fit, holding on to that and getting it done.

Schedule it in

The busier you are, the guiltier you feel for taking a moment to yourself. “The truth is that prioritising your physical and mental health is the most important thing you can do in your day and should be prioritised above an extra hour at your desk or slumped in front of Netflix – as tempting as that might be when you’re tired,” says Dr Ross.

“A workout is probably the last thing you want to do at the end of a busy work day or when the kids have gone to bed, so I usually advise banking your workout early in the day if that’s possible.

“Sitting at a desk all day is physically and chemically demotivating – it lowers your blood flow and raises your cortisol levels.” As you close your laptop for the day, try standing in a power pose for several minutes: feet slightly apart, chest up and standing tall and hands either on your hips or above your head in a V.

“This position lowers cortisol levels and increases energy-boosting testosterone and motivation.”

Put it on the calendar or in your work diary to build a boundary around that time. Research shows that scheduling your workouts in this way helps you to workout more often.

“It might help to think of your workout as part of your lifestyle rather than a ‘session’,” advises performance coach, author and founder of TwentyTwo Training Dalton Wong. “Can you walk, run or stretch as part of your day? It’s all about being consistent with your movement.”

Try getting off your train a couple of stops early or parking your car a short walk away from the office. You don’t have a choice but to travel from A to B – you might as well make it count. In fact scientists say that people who use their daily commute to squeeze in some physical activity may reap considerable rewards for their health.

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Take small steps

The first step is the biggest hurdle to your journey, says Dr Ross. “Once you make that first step it’s far easier to give yourself a nudge to do more. Just commit to putting your trainers on and then there’s no reason you shouldn’t walk to the bottom of your drive. Then why not walk around the block? Easy? Try picking up the pace.

“If you’ve already found something that you previously liked then getting back to that is easier. You can use it and fuel motivation.”

“When starting or resuming any exercise plan, it's critically important to take it slow,” says Wong. “I would suggest that you always start at 60% of what you did before, as this will allow your body to recognise that you're moving again.”

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Set realistic goals

Saying you’ll run a marathon in six months’ time is commendable but, while Wong agrees that setting specific goals with deadlines is a good way to stick to exercise habits and boost your motivation to keep moving, lofty goals can be counterproductive and demotivating.

In fact, recent research by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health revealed that inactive people start moving more if they receive daily step targets on their phone that exceed their usual number of steps — but only up to a point. If the exercise goals become too daunting, people start failing to meet them, which dents their motivation overall.

“It’s useful to have lots of goals scattered across time whether it’s how fit you are, the distance you run or the number of workouts you aim to do per week,” explains Dr Ross. “For example, having a goal to run 5k in a month and 10k in three would give you something to aim for beyond the initial target. A single cumulative goal would also help you stick to your regime: such as aiming to walk the Appalachian trail virtually.” Once you’ve achieved a goal then treat yourself and make it a fun process to choose the next one. Reached 5k? Try achieving a headstand.

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Hold yourself accountable

It’s easier to give up on a goal if nobody else knows about it. Turns out paying for a class, meeting up with a workout buddy (virtually or in person), or simply tracking and sharing your progress on a smart watch can help keep you motivated.

In one study, participants had a 65% chance of completing a goal if they told someone else about it. Those chances of success rose to a staggering 95% if they committed to meeting up with that person in real life. “When you make a commitment with a friend or group to start an exercise journey, you can motivate each other and share in the highs and lows,” says Wong.

Scientists have long speculated that the “high” you feel after exercise prime us to connect with those around us. Married couples reported feeling more loved and supported after exercising with their partner. Research shows that the healthy actions of others rub off on us, with overweight people tending to lose more weight if they spend time with their fit friends.

“Wearable devices that can help track various measurements from: heart rate, sleep, steps, exercise intensity, calories and recovery. These measurements can be motivation to hit certain personal health targets as well as enabling you to join various fitness communities.”

Whether it’s a club or wingwoman waiting for you to arrive to get started, a financial tie to a class you’ve already booked and paid for or committing to regularly sharing your health tracker data on social media, there’s also research revealing that this level of healthy competition (even with your own PB) can help you see results faster.

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Find something you love

“The biggest mistake people can make is viewing exercise as a punishment for eating too much or disliking their body,” says Dr Ross. Perhaps the most important way to build and maintain motivation is tapping into the reward pathway in your brain. “You don’t have to fall in love with the exercise that you’re doing,” explains Dr Ross. “It could be the music or a great instructor at your gym who inspires you to keep going back.

“Research shows that saving your favourite audiobook or podcast for your workout can make you more likely to keep doing it,” says Dr Ross. “In fact, the mental and physical benefits can just be a byproduct of finding out what happens in the next chapter.”

“The human brain is wired for reward and if you get feel-good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine that make you feel relaxed or energised everytime you workout you’ll be more likely to keep doing it.

“If you can keep going for 21 days the workout can become a habit meaning it’s just something you do and you’ll no longer have to muster the willpower to go every time.”

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Take your exercise regime from outdoors to indoors with our guide to the best at-home workouts, exercises and free classes.