There have been times in my life where I’ve loved working out. Before you roll your eyes and groan, thinking, “Oh, she’s one of those people,” just know that it’s been such a long time since I’ve felt that way that the concept is now as unrelatable to me as it might be to you.
Back during my love affair with fitness, I was in a really different place in my life—just out of college and living as a new NYC transplant, where everything in my life felt unduly exciting. And, when I truly think about it, my workout routine was really optimized to be enjoyable. My week was peppered with a swath of hip workout classes, spanning the gamut from boot camps to spin, pilates to deep water running. I trained for a triathlon with a friend, rode engaging virtual reality bikes at my gym, and lifted weights with a coworker after work. On top of their normal health benefits, workouts were social time, adventure time, and stress-busting time all in one.
Since exercising has become much more of a chore in recent years, and is now simply something that I feel like I need to do rather than want to do, I decided to seek out advice on rekindling my fondness for working out. So, I turned to two experts for all the best strategies for actually enjoying workouts, so that I’m more motivated and committed to my health and fitness goals.
Want to look forward to your workouts instead of counting down the minutes for them to be over? Read on for 14 expert tips on how to actually enjoy working out.
Meet the Expert
Do What You Love
If you hate your workout, it’s going to be difficult to feel excited or motivated to take it on. The lowest hanging fruit on the how-to-love-exercising tree is to pick an activity you actually enjoy doing. There are so many different kinds of activities and environments to perform them in, so if you haven’t found your groove yet—something you find relatively fun—keep dabbling. “You might be drawn to weightlifting in the basement or in a gym, rock climbing, contact sports, running, pilates, being in nature, or yoga,” says Eisner. “You might love an activity because you like going hard and getting your heart rate up, or you might like certain exercises because they’re calming. You might like a certain activity because you love how your muscles feel, or because you feel a sense of bliss afterwards.” It’s important to think about what you love, why you love it, and where you love to do it. “Honor yourself by listening to your body and temperament, and don’t do something just because you think you should. The more you genuinely just enjoy something, the more you will be apt to stick with it,” explains Eisner.
Focus On the Outcome
Okay, so maybe it’s hard to actually love doing heavy squats or holding a plank when your muscles are trembling, but if you think about how good you’ll feel physically and mentally by completing your workout, it will help your brain push onward. “It becomes vital for exercise to stimulate dopamine in the brain in order to help people who struggle with motivation to look forward to getting to their workouts,” explains Eisner. “We want these people to associate exercise not with something they have to do and get over with, but with something that feels good in the body, boosts their mood or lowers anxiety, or in which they cultivate positive feelings about themselves for doing something healthy and taking care of themselves.”
Listen to Music or Podcasts
With wireless headphones, it’s fairly easy to exercise and listen to music or podcasts these days, which can provide entertainment, distraction, and prevent you from getting bored.
“Music can not only help you pass the time working out, but [it can] also motivate you and make it that much easier to stay focused on your task at hand,” explains Goldberg. “Also, music helps constructively distract us from the inner [dialogue] of negative self-talk and self-doubts.” And, if you’re looking to make your sweat time double as learning time, consider podcasts. “Podcasts can provide you intellectual stimulation or a dose of comedy,” shares Eisner. To really give you the push to work out, consider reserving your favorite podcast, show, or audiobook listening for workouts only, so that you’re drawn to lace up your sneakers to enjoy the next installment and catch up with your favorite characters.
As adults, we rarely "play" anymore, yet playing is not only inherently fun, but also important for our mental health. According to Eisner, "Play can be something that allows you to move freely and experiment, such as putting on music and dancing in your room, or it could be something with a competitive vibe such as a sport." When I used to ride the exercise bike with a virtual reality interface, the whole ride felt like one big game. "Play is often associated with the sought after 'flow' state, in which you are able to get fully absorbed in an activity and be so immersed in the moment that you lose a sense of time," explains Eisner. "The ingredients that lead to flow are having skill in the activity (you might have practiced it for years), yet you are still challenged by it to an optimal level (it’s not too easy nor too difficult), and you enjoy engaging in it. Consider going back to a sport you played as a child, such as soccer, basketball, or tennis, and joining an adult recreational or competitive team.
Make It Social
Looking back, I think part of what made my jam-packed fitness routine in my younger years so much fun was that I did most activities with different friends or took classes where there was a strong social component before and after the class. Camaraderie really does help. “It’s always easier to get motivated and push yourself out of your comfort zone when you’re not alone,” notes Goldberg. “Find a like-minded partner and your exercise ‘work’ will be that much easier.” Eisner agrees. “Finding a workout buddy will help you stay accountable and boost social connection and endorphins,” says Eisner. And, get creative. For outdoor activities, your buddy can even be your dog.
Remove the Pressure
Setting small goals helps remove any pressure or sense of overwhelm that a daunting or seemingly unrealistic goal might. Especially if you’re just starting out on your exercise journey, the goals can be really small—consider putting on your shoes and doing 20 jumping jacks, or take a 10-minute walk. “Setting small, accomplishable goals helps you to build up good feelings about yourself, establish trust with yourself, and makes failure impossible,” explains Eisner.
Harness the Feeling of Pride
“Make sure to connect with a sense of pride in yourself for small or large accomplishments in your exercise routine,” advises Eisner, who says these internal rewards can really help keep the habit going. “This isn’t an ego or pride thing as in: ‘Look at me I ran 8 miles!’ It’s more the smile of a toddler when she’s learning how to walk! There’s a natural and healthy pride that arises when we extend beyond our comfort zone, and it really serves us to fully take that in.”
Another thing that can get you out the door for your workout is knowing that you have something to look forward to when you return. Program a small “reward” or “treat” into your routine that immediately follows your workout. Only allow yourself to earn the reward if you complete your sweat session. “Leaving something like breakfast or coffee to look forward to after your exercise can be an extra incentive during your workout,” suggests Eisner. “This creates the association between working out and feeling happy and satisfied, which stimulates dopamine in the brain and helps you to maintain motivation for an ongoing exercise routine.” Or, give yourself a reward at the end of the week if you get all your workouts in. Perhaps there are some new songs you want for your pump-up playlist, a cute fitness top, or a manicure. Pick something fun that will motivate you to lace up and work out.
Do you remember the feeling of itching to go out for recess when you were a kid? Recreate that draw with your workout. Most of us spend the majority of our day inside, so instead of taking on an indoor workout and adding to that time, exercise outdoors for a change of scenery—and additional physical and mental benefits we all need. “[It’s] a chance to be mindful, get out of your head, and bring your attention to the setting around you—the sights of the trees and sky, the smells of the fresh air, flowers blooming, the sounds of birds,” shares Eisner. “Breathing natural chemicals in a forest/tree setting benefits the immune system, and visually taking in organic materials (with soft edges and curves, rather than sharp edges as is common in city settings) is calming for the nervous system.” Plus, it boosts the mood. “Chronic depression in our culture may be linked to increased separation from the natural world,” says Eisner. “Getting outside and in nature is an antidote to that, which can heal, de-stress, bring joy, and restore our spirits. Also getting sunlight, which contains vitamin D, is a good mood booster.”
Keep It Fresh
Even if you're a yoga fanatic or training for a marathon, make sure you’re introducing other activities into the mix as well. Adding variety to your workout routine doesn’t just make your fitness more well-rounded and help prevent injuries, but it also keeps your brain engaged and seeking more. “To increase dopamine in the brain around exercise, we want to make the exercise feel not tedious, boring, or obligatory, but [something] fun, exciting, and containing novelty,” advises Eisner.
Consider Your “Why”
“Remembering why you are doing this (I feel so good afterwards; I am valuing my health; my anxiety decreases when I am exercising regularly), will help bring more meaning into the exercise practice itself, and help you maintain your workout routine,” says Eisner. You might even consider physically writing you “why” on a notecard and placing it somewhere prominent in your home or office, so that you’ll catch glimpse and remember what matters to you, even when your motivation is low.
Goldberg agrees that having a “why” you connect with makes your workouts more enjoyable because you are more consciously connected to the benefits of pushing yourself through them—thus, the work becomes worth it. “Motivation is all about having a specific direction for you to head towards,” explains Goldberg, who says you need to have a big enough “why” to sustain your motivation.
Use It For Stress Relief
“Finding a workout that offers stress relief might lead to you to notice lowered anxiety, increased mood, a sense of lightness, feeling calmer, or feeling a greater sense of wellbeing,” notes Eisner, who remarks that these feelings can be deeply rewarding. “A common experience for [people who practice] yoga is post-practice ‘yoga brain’, wherein you’re feeling a sense of peace and even bliss—you tend to forget where you put your shoes or keys.” We could all use a nice dose of calm. By consciously acknowledging the stress relief and mood boost a workout will give you, you may be more motivated to hit the gym.
Use Positive Affirmations
If you’re struggling through your warmup, and really dreading the workout, try to reroute your mind with uplifting quotes and encouragement. Goldberg says that nothing good comes from negativity. “It kills our motivation, undermines our confidence, and sabotages our intentions,” he says. “Use positive affirmations to keep yourself positive and moving towards your goals. If this sounds daunting or uncomfortable, Goldberg encourages you to push through and try it anyway. “Even if the positive statements you make to yourself are hard to believe in the beginning, they will form a bridge to help you get from how you think and feel now to how you want to think and feel in the future,” he says.
Set an Exciting Goal
Though small, achievable goals can provide a more immediate sense of pride and accomplishment, and develop a sense of self-efficacy, big, exciting goals have their place, too. “Working towards a race such as a 5K, marathon, or triathlon can be extremely motivating and you can celebrate your progress over time.” Consider setting a combination of smaller goals that lead stepwise to a “dream” goal. You’ll have more fun along the journey—during each individual workout—if you know it’s leading you towards a big adventure or something really exciting.
“You have to have a big dream or goal that you really want to accomplish,” advises Goldberg. “And then to make this work, you must break that big goal into smaller ones so that every day you can see that you’re working towards the accomplishment of that big ‘why.’”