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Struggling to start strength training, slay the cardio combat class, or even prioritize a walk on a sunny day through flowering meadows? We’ve all been there. Many of us are there right now (as in: on the couch, wondering how we’ll ever get up again). How and why we think about physical activity, and how we decide or plan to incorporate it into our lives, has a lot to do with whether or not we’re successful in staying active, research shows.
Our quiz helps you figure out how to maximize your workout success—and your friends’ (if they want it maximized). Check out the scenarios below and pick the option(s) you think might work. For each question, at least one of the options is a YAAASSS. Some options may not help much (NOOOOOO). Others aren’t ideal, but aren’t hopeless either (NOT REALLY BUT). Click on your answer to find out how it ranks and why.
You’ve been inactive for a year and want to start working out again. You struggle with negative body image and tend to take an all-or-nothing approach to nutrition and working out (super-healthy vs. whatever). What might help you make physical activity an ongoing thing?
Looking after ourselves gets easier when our goals are feeling good and being healthier in general. When we focus on our body weight and shape, there’s usually an element of shame and stigma—and this tends to backfire, studies show. In contrast, when our goals are health and well-being, healthy behaviors are more accessible and sustainable, according to 2014 review of studies in the Journal of Obesity.
“There is this cultural belief that people have to be dissatisfied with themselves in order to make behavioral changes to improve their health,” says Sara Stahlman, marketing and communication coordinator of Campus Health Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “In fact, the opposite has been shown; people take better care of their bodies when they hold their bodies in high regard.”
“As someone who has struggled with body image, I understand the temptation to push my limits in a negative sense. Physical exercise forces you to come to terms with the fact that your body is a miracle.”
—Name and college withheld
NOT REALLY BUT
Big goals work great for some people, when they’re ready. Right now, we’re thinking this may not be the best approach for you. The bigger the goal, the higher the chance of not getting there. Your all-or-nothing history (which isn’t unusual) shows the pitfalls. Try looking for ways to have fun with working out first (see Q2).
That includes racking up some small successes. How does 2 percent sound? Two percent lifestyle change is the key to full-on success, says Dr. Edward Phillips, director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts. That’s because small steps are realistic and sustainable, and can lead to big results.
“If your goal is to go to the gym every day of the week for two hours a day, ask how confident you are that you’ll stick to that plan for the next three to four weeks,” says Dr. Phillips. “If your confidence level is low, think about dialing it back and going to the gym three times a week for an hour, or going to a Zumba class once a week as a start. What’s your confidence level in that? It’s easier and probably more attainable to achieve the smaller goal first.”
If you keep getting stuck, try talking with a personal trainer; you may be able to get a free session or two at your campus gym. Another option for some: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help us reframe the thinking that’s holding us back.
Hanging out with active people helps us get active. “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. Arrange with your friends to join them for the bike ride or that cardio groove class.
In a 2015 study, finding a new workout partner made people more physically active, especially when the partner was emotionally supportive (British Journal of Health Psychology). Another bonus: Working out with others means we work out longer or harder, a 2012 study suggests (Annals of Behavioral Medicine).
“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 know that I was going to do it no matter what. I hate backing out.”
—Fifth-year undergraduate, Midwestern State University, Texas
Friends not in the mood? Look for groups and communities that exist specifically to get active, such as the November Project and Meetup groups.
You know physical activity is the greatest thing you can ever do for yourself bar not much. But for you, the gym is a soulless wasteland. In high school you enjoyed track, but you’re having a hard time seeing yourself getting back into that kind of shape. What’s a good way to get moving anyway?
As a motivational strategy, beating yourself up doesn’t work long term. Life rule: Shaming ourselves or others does not work, and studies prove it. Stigmatizing body size makes people “sicker, poorer, lonelier, and less secure,” says Dr. Deb Burgard, a psychologist in California who specializes in body image, weight, and health issues. For more on this backfire effect, see Q1.
There are far more effective (and less demoralizing) tactics than this. Keep reading.
Moving isn’t just about moving. It’s also about being with friends, letting go of your stress and angst, or even the task of getting from your residence hall to downtown. What works is doing stuff you like, at a pace you like, in places you like.
Try loosening up your thinking in general. “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. Michelle Segar, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (Amacom, 2015).
Physical activity actually feels better than we expect, studies show. And recognizing this may help us do it. For example, in a 2016 study, participants ran for 30 minutes on a treadmill. Some were told in advance that running helped people feel refreshed and relaxed (Health Psychology). The participants were asked to keep up their runs through the week. Those who’d been primed to feel good about the run reported that the treadmill workout was less fatiguing, and intended to run more, than those who had not been primed this way.
In a recent survey by Student Health 101, many students described fitness as a mind game. “I usually trick myself into thinking I am just having fun, even though I am getting a lot of physical activity in,” says a second-year undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin–Plattville.
For more on reframing the way you think about this, see Q5.
“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
NOT REALLY BUT
Swimming is awesome. Learning new stuff is awesome. Walking 10 blocks is awesome. So why are we hesitating about this plan? Because building healthier habits has to be as easy as possible. The 10-block schlep to the pool is an ideal excuse to not follow through. It’s too hot. It’s raining. The hamster ate your shoes. Plus, learning to swim is a major prerequisite for getting more active—and if you struggle, your plan’s dead in the water.
Think about activities that (a) you already know you can enjoy, and (b) you can work into your day conveniently. Maybe that’s running or biking the route back to your residence hall after the lecture. Maybe you can go to on-campus yoga or high-intensity cardio with a friend twice a week. Also—don’t forget to track your steps and factor in the value of what you’re already doing. That counts too.
When setting goals and planning, bear in mind that adults aged 18–64 should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week, according to the World Health Organization. You can substitute at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activity.
- Moderate aerobic activity requires some effort and makes your heart beat faster—e.g., brisk walking, yard work, and dancing.
- Vigorous aerobic activity requires a lot of effort; it causes rapid breathing and ramps up your heart rate—e.g., running, climbing hills, and fast cycling.
Candy, a third-year student in biology class, has moderate cerebral palsy and uses leg braces. She tells you she wants to build upper-body strength and generally tone up. How do you respond?
This plan is practical, social, and could work well for both of you. Some disabilities and other pre-existing conditions have implications for working out. Your friend knows her own body and can seek medical clearance if needed. This is her call.
As for making a plan you can stick with—effective strategies are flexible, research shows. Expect your fitness approach to change over time. As we adopt new behaviors and try to turn those into habits, we benefit from evolving messages, strategies, and tools. The same motivational messages that got us up off the sofa in the first place may not be exactly what we need six weeks later (this idea is sometimes known as “stages of change”). In the liveWell wellness program for students, the messages and tools shift appropriately as you make progress.
Self-consciousness can be a barrier to working out, yes. Candy hasn’t said that’s a problem for her, though. Many people with disabilities are marginalized and excluded. We all do better when we’re socially integrated into our communities. For example, people with robust social networks (supportive friends and family) experience lower rates of chronic disease and longer lives, and more job opportunities, according to a 2011 report from the National Research Council.
This isn’t just about being nice (though being nice is nice). A more inclusive, accessible environment is good for many people besides those with disabilities: older adults, pregnant women, parents with small children, people with less education, and speakers of a second language, says a 2011 report by the World Bank and World Health Organization. We’ll all be in at least one of those groups some day.
Disability advocates call this “inspiration porn.” It’s condescending. Why should you be amazed that Candy wants to do something with her life?
Speaking of, let’s not be so quick to share memes and posts that are based on the idea that disabled people are a burden. Sure, invite your autistic classmate to the dance. But that gesture at inclusion backfires if you’re applauded for your self-sacrifice. This is about forming connections that work for everyone.
You share your apartment with three other guys. Imran is having a hard time getting to Ultimate Frisbee, and he tells you how much he’s missing it. On top of his usual workload, he’s rehearsing for a performance and is involved in the care of his sick father, so he doesn’t even have much time to hang out.
The calendar presents a plan and serves as a cue to action (reminder)—two effective strategies for making this happen. Joining Imran for Ultimate Frisbee is reinforcing and rewarding for both of you, while adding accountability—you’ll nudge each other to get there. Just make sure the calendar doesn’t become so familiar that you guys start tuning it out. Switch up your reminders every so often.
Point to note: Planning is key to establishing new habits. In a 2006 study of people with cardiac issues, participants who wrote down their workout plan (and anticipated how they would handle any obstacles) were far more likely to be physically active over the next two months than those who did not make a plan (British Journal of Health Psychology).
For more on buddy workouts and why they help, see Q1.
Providing invisible support is an act of true friendship. You understand the barriers Imran faces and you’re helping reduce them, without drawing attention to yourself, without expecting to be repaid in some way, and without insisting that he use the time to play Frisbee. It’s great if he does, but sometimes that might not be an option.
NOT REALLY BUT
Sympathy is a good thing. Acknowledging reality is too. That said, Imran has told you he’s missing Frisbee. Getting back into the game would give him a break from the pressure, help him reconnect with friends, and keep his spirits up. You can’t impose a solution, of course, but you can probably make it easier.
Lack of time is a problem for many of us, which is why those small goals are so helpful (see Q1). If you can’t run for your usual 40 minutes, run for 15—that will still help you feel good, as well as sustaining the habit. Or go lower. “If all you can fit in is an extra five minutes a day, make that your plan and go from there,” says Dr. Michelle Segar, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (Amacom, 2015).
“Running is like therapy to me. I am able to clear my mind of negative thoughts and I also feel better when I done. I breathe more smoothly and am more relaxed.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Illinois State University
You have a family history of chronic illness. You worry that your sedentary lifestyle is setting you up for pain and disability down the road, but you have trouble sustaining your motivation to be active. What do you say to yourself?
This isn’t an effective motivational strategy. Judging and shaming your family, and implicitly yourself, is unlikely to work long term (see Q1 and Q2).
Your belief in willpower may let you down too. In experiments, willpower seems to be a finite, inconsistent resource. In other words, when we’re physically or mentally fatigued, we’re less likely to make it to the pool than we are to pick up a pizza. Even social interaction can drain our willpower, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (That said, this can go both ways. Being in a good mood gives us a willpower boost, and our own attitudes and beliefs can affect willpower too, according to the American Psychological Association.) Bottom line: Don’t count on willpower always being there for you.
Instead, two key approaches can help you make changes that stick:
- Set up your home and schedule in ways that make physical activity more convenient
- Think differently about physical activity: See Q2 and answer B (next slide).
“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.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Michigan Technology University
Immediate benefits are far more motivating than the distant prospect of better health, according to behavioral scientists.
Identify the immediate perks of taking that run or climbing the hill. These likely include a better mood, increased energy, a brainpower boost, stress relief, sharper focus, and feeling good about yourself. High-energy music helps bring about a rapid attitude adjustment (try the latest trap beat).
Not feeling it? Put on workout gear anyway. “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,” says a second-year undergraduate at Colorado College. “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.”
Other mind tricks can help make this not just about fitness (see Q2). Take a walk through the woods, ending up somewhere pretty where you can sit and read. Ride to the beach to watch the sunset. Get a friend to join you in a kayak. Put on some music and dance.
“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.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York
NOT REALLY BUT
It’s always good to be informed. Health info can help us think about how susceptible we are to a disease and how that disease might affect us. That said, health information alone rarely enables us to change our habits.
Instead, think about specific barriers to getting active. What’s stopping you? Maybe it’s something practical (the logistics of getting to the basketball court). Maybe it’s psychological (working out feels like a chore). Maybe it’s financial (the cost of a personal trainer).
Now think about ways you can minimize those barriers. The basketball court is not your only option; what’s nearby? Have you noticed that when you do get active it actually feels pretty good (for real)? Do you have access to a free training session on campus—and what app or video series could substitute for a personal trainer?
“I was pre-diabetic before I started to be physically active. I am now 100 pounds lighter. My mental clarity is way better than it was before. I never thought I would ever hear myself say that.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Park University (online)
Your on-trend friend Issa wants to work out with you. She’s into Barry’s Bootcamp and SoulCycle, but right now those are beyond her budget. Instead, she’s sitting around watching reality shows (she enjoys those too). What’s a good strategy here?
Issa is hooked in to popular culture and likes to be ahead of the crowd. When influential people spearhead activities and campaigns, there’s a social ripple effect. Here, Sergeant Squat is poised to turn Issa (and you) on to a new fitness approach. Maybe you and she will transmit it to others.
In addition, you’re making a specific plan and working out together—two keys to success (see Q4 and Q1). Just make sure that if the new workout feels good, you plan how to keep at it. And if it’s not for you, look around for alternatives.
Buddy workouts are gang (see Q1).
To keep things fresh, use the Deck of Cards approach. Take turns to draw a card from a deck. Each suit represents a different move. For example: hearts = squats, spades = burpees, diamonds = planks, clubs = lunges. The number on the card is your number of reps. You can change up the moves with each show or round, of course.
“It’s a lot easier to get off the couch if you know your friends are waiting for you.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Dallas, Texas
Rewards can be strategic and effective. You can switch them up. Maybe your workout time is when you listen to a killer audio book. Maybe you get a smoothie afterward, give each other a pedi, or download a new app or podcast.
Another approach to rewards: the 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 which you agree or a group you’re not too fond of. This way, missing your goal is painful.”
To sign up for a commitment contract, see Stickk.com. To earn money rewards for workouts, check out the app Pact—but remember that if you’re the one missing your workouts, your cash rewards others.
“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, college withheld
No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness: Michelle Segar
(American Management Association, 2015)
Chris Stuck-Girard, MPH, JD, contributed to this article.
Deb Burgard, PhD, psychologist, California.
Sara Stahlman, MA, marketing and communication coordinator, Campus Health Services, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Edward Phillips, MD, founder and director, Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts.
Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH, author; No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (Amacom, 2015).
Xiaomeng Xu, PhD, professor of psychology, Idaho State University.
Fred Zimmerman, PhD, professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, University of California, Los Angeles.
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