January is probably the busiest time for personal trainers. That’s because a lot of people make New Year’s Resolutions to get fit and lose weight around this time. Gyms are also much busier in January as new members join up and try to work off the excesses of the holidays.
Unfortunately, the majority of resolutions are dead in the water by mid-February. Studies suggest that as many as 80% of new dieters and exercisers quit within six weeks (1).
As a veteran personal trainer, I always expect to be flat-out during January, seeing new clients or clients coming back to restart their fitness journey. I’m also pleased to say that my client dropout rate is considerably lower than the industry standard of 80%.
That’s because I understand that getting and staying in shape is not just a physical pursuit – it’s also a mental battle. Long-term exercise and diet adherence are as much about psychology as physiology.
In this article, I delve into the mental side of fitness, revealing the strategies I use to help my clients stay on track through January and beyond.
What is Motivation, and Why Does it Fail?
Motivation is the driving force behind all human activity. It’s what makes you want to change your habits, and it’s also what helps you maintain those changes. Unfortunately, motivation is a limited resource, and the more you rely on it, the faster you deplete it.
That’s why so many New Year’s Resolutions fail within a few weeks. Simply put, motivation runs out.
Starting a new diet or exercise program is usually pretty easy, as motivation levels are naturally high. However, as you encounter barriers and obstacles, you’ll quickly burn through your limited motivation supplies. This makes it much harder to stick to your new diet or exercise plan.
If motivation runs out before you have turned your changes into habits, you’ll revert to your previous behaviors. Studies indicate that it can take 2-3 months to create a new habit (2).
Consequently, the more resistance you encounter, the more motivation you’ll need to keep going. Consequently, the more likely you are to fail.
Drains on your motivation include:
- Taking on too many new changes at once
- Lack of enjoyment
- Lack of knowledge
- Lack of accountability
- Improper planning
- Unrealistic expectations
- Slow progress
- Lack of feedback
- Too little support
- Peer pressure to quit
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Too little time
- Too much effort
Little by little, these obstacles deplete your motivation, making it harder to maintain your momentum. When resistance to change outweighs your motivation, you’ll quit and revert to your old behaviors.
In contrast, once a behavior becomes a habit, you won’t need to rely on your motivation to continue. It’s like coasting downhill after cycling up a steep climb.
That’s why the first few months after making a New Year’s resolution are so critical. Get a few months of consistent exercise or healthy eating behind you, and continuing will be much easier.
Strategies for Staying Motivated
Are you fed up with failing? Don’t be so hard on yourself! Remember, as many as 80% of New Year’s Resolutions are broken before mid-February. However, just because the statistics are against you doesn’t mean you can’t buck the trend and make your resolutions stick.
Here are my tried and tested strategies for staying motivated through January and beyond.
Start with Small, Sustainable Changes
While wanting to overhaul your entire lifestyle and make it healthier is applaudable, nothing drains your motivation more than taking on too much at once. Avoid this kind of overload by rolling out changes gradually. I call this strategy “the snowball effect.”
For example, instead of starting an exercise routine, diet program, and trying to quit smoking and drinking coffee at the same time, focus on one objective. Then, once that’s become a habit, you can shift your attention to the next item on your list. While smaller changes are not all that dramatic, they build up over time and start to gain their own momentum. More momentum means you’ll need less willpower to keep things moving.
Set Clear Goals
Having a clear goal makes it much easier to stay motivated. A goal is your “why” for making and sustaining your changes. Goals are very personal, and you’ll need to spend some time identifying yours. However, the more your goal “speaks” to you, the more powerful it will be.
For example, instead of a goal like “I want to lose weight,” you can reframe that to something like, “I want to lose 20 pounds to improve my health so I can be a more active father and play sports with my kids.” With more on the line, you should find it easier to stay motivated.
Ideally, goals should be SMART, meaning:
Break Down Goals into Smaller, More Achievable Steps
The longer a goal takes to reach, the more motivation you will need to achieve it. With months or even years to go, it’s hard to stay focused. So, increase your chances of success by breaking big goals down into more manageable chunks.
For example, instead of trying to lose 50 pounds, start with just five. Then, when you’ve reached that target, shift your sights to the next five pounds. Every five pounds you lose will boost your motivation. However, if you look at five pounds compared to 50, it would be easy to feel demotivated by your slow progress.
Measure Your Progress
Nothing boosts motivation like progress. In contrast, few things will drain your motivation than feeling all your work is getting you nowhere fast. As such, whatever your goal may be, you need to find ways to measure your results.
Ways to do this include:
- Body composition assessments
- Circumferential measurements
- Progress photos
- Fitness tests
- Benchmark workouts
- Food and workout diaries
Don’t worry if you are starting at zero. After all, the only way is up! Seeing how far you have come is very motivating and shows that your efforts are producing results.
While progress is its own kind of reward, some people are motivated more by external treats and indulgences. For example, you could buy a new pair of sneakers after two months of consistent workouts or go out for a fancy meal after a week of clean eating.
However, make sure that your reward won’t derail your progress. For example, a cheat meal could easily derail your weight loss efforts.
Read more about how to limit the damaging effects of cheat meals here.
Do Things You Enjoy
The more enjoyable something is, the less motivation you’ll need to do it. For instance, you’ll find it easier to go to the gym regularly if you like your workout. But, if you hate it, you already have a readymade excuse to quit.
Fitness professionals love to argue over the merits of different types of exercise. Some like to champion HIIT cardio over steady state, while others promote strength training and diss cardio.
Ultimately, the best workout is the one you enjoy and can do regularly. So, don’t worry about what type of exercise is best. Instead, pick the one that requires the least amount of motivation.
Create A Support Network
Whether you are trying to lose weight or get fit, you’ll need more motivation if you go it alone. A support network can help in many ways, from keeping you accountable to simply cheering you on from the sidelines by taking an interest in your progress.
Examples of people you can recruit to your support network include:
- Personal trainers
- Workout partners
- Nutrition coaches
- Diet partners
- Accountability partners
- Online support groups
- Weight loss groups
- Sports clubs
- Friends and family members
Some of these people can provide direct assistance, while others are peripheral and provide indirect help. The point is that your fitness journey does not have to be a solo effort. And as the old saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved.
Use Routines and Systems
The less conscious effort you have to use to exercise and eat well, the less motivation it will take to do these things consistently. Routines and systems help make your actions automatic, which takes a lot less mental effort than directing your actions on the fly.
A routine is simply a plan made in advance. A routine is one of the best ways to turn new actions into habits. For example, instead of hitting the gym as and when you feel like it, having set training days and times means you are more likely to exercise regularly. Create your routine and just show up. Do this enough times, and the habit will soon start to stick.
Another example of a routine is creating a weekly menu of healthy meals so you know what you’re going to eat from one day to the next. Having a menu means you’ll be less likely to break your diet just because you can’t think of something healthy to eat.
Routines promote consistency, and consistency builds habits. Remember, habits all but negate the need to rely on your willpower.
Systems make it easier to stick to your routine by removing potential obstacles before they become apparent. For example, if you plan to go to the gym after work, pack your gym bag the night before. Put it in your car so you won’t forget it when you rush out the following morning.
Regarding healthy eating, batch-cooking healthy meals at the weekend and freezing them for the week ahead makes it much easier to stick to your diet. This system makes your diet more foolproof. Another nutrition system would be to make your breakfast the night before, so you don’t end up grabbing a mid-morning donut because you’re hungry.
So, use routines to remove decision-making from your workouts and diet and systems to eliminate potential roadblocks. Both of these methods take a lot of pressure off your motivation.
Focus on The Journey, Not Just the Outcome
While having an end goal can be very motivating, goals can lose their motivational power if they are a long way off or your progress is not as fast as you would like. Breaking long-term goals into short-term goals can help with this, but it may still not be the best solution to your waning motivation levels.
So, instead of focusing on a singular goal, think about the ongoing benefits of exercising and eating healthy.
- Improved immunity
- More energy
- Lower blood pressure
- Increased functional strength
- Better mental health
- Improved blood lipid profile
- Better sleep
- Increased bone density
- Improved glucose tolerance
- Longer lifespan
While these benefits may not directly relate to your ultimate fitness and weight loss goals, they’re still very valuable, and you should feel motivated that your workouts and diet are doing you good.
In fact, these ongoing benefits are arguably more important than reaching a specific body weight or level of fitness. After all, your health is arguably the most valuable resource e you’ve got.
The Mental Side of Fitness
Over the last 30 years, I’ve helped hundreds of people achieve their health and fitness goals. While program design and exercise coaching are a big part of my job, mindset is arguably more important.
After all, I can only tell and show my clients what to do; they’re the ones who need to carry out my instructions. Motivation is as critical as a good training program or meal plan.
Use the information in this article to either boost your motivation or prevent it from being eroded in the first place. While you’ll still need to put in the work, staying motivated will make it easier to stay on the path to fitness and wellness and reach your goals.
- Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A. A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One. 2020 Dec 9;15(12):e0234097. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234097. PMID: 33296385; PMCID: PMC7725288.
- Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012 Dec;62(605):664-6. doi: 10.3399/bjgp12X659466. PMID: 23211256; PMCID: PMC3505409.
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January 19, 2024
Patrick Dale, PT, ex-Marine