We all know exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle—but it can be difficult to keep a routine when life gets in the way. "It's okay if you are not motivated to go back to working out or prioritizing your health. This past year has taught us that we can't control everything," says Alex Carneiro, an ACSM-certified personal trainer and Optimum Nutrition ambassador. He's right: With a global pandemic disrupting our routines, it's understandable if you've gotten off track.
Getting back on track with healthy habits can be challenging, especially if you have not been consistent. We asked Carneiro and psychologist Dr. Andreas Michaelides, chief of psychology with Noom, to provide tips for getting back in action with your fitness goals. Read on for what they had to say.
Set Precise, Realistic Goals
Setting goals is important, but for those goals to serve you, they need to be specific and realistic.
"The most common reason I've noticed clients don't stick to their goals is that they don't create precise goals. They have a general idea of what they want, but that's not enough," says Carneiro.
If you were active before, it might be tempting to measure your progress against your previous routine. "However, things have changed, and you will likely not be able to do everything in the exact same way. Take note of what works for you in this 'new normal' and put boundaries in place to regain control of your schedule," advises Michaelides.
"If you had solid pre-COVID exercise habits, you will have an easier time getting back into an exercise routine, but do not be discouraged if it takes longer than you think to reestablish this habit," Michaelides adds.
Carneiro suggests creating small, more realistic goals that are measurable and attainable. "If your goal is to lose 30 pounds in six months, break it down realistically to five pounds per month and create micro-goals to lose one to two pounds per week. When you do so, your motivation levels will be much more consistent as you see that the small changes are going to contribute to your larger overall goals," he says.
Break Down Your Task
"Big goals are great to have—it’s important to know what you are working towards and where you are headed. Trying to tackle them all at once, however, can feel overwhelming; instead, try breaking down your big goal into smaller, achievable tasks," says Michaelides.
He recommends using SMART goals, which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. "If your goal is to wake up every single morning to go running, but you haven’t run in a long time, start by just waking up in the morning at that earlier time or walking instead of running. Over time, you can increase your time spent exercising and pace. Think of each task as a building block—starting with small steps can still lead to big changes," recommends Michaelides.
Add Back Healthy Habits Slowly
If your routines have been disrupted, causing your motivation to disappear, it can mean that you need to recreate routines that prompt you to get active again. However, it's a good idea not to rush and incorporate many new habits all at once, which can be overwhelming.
"Regaining motivation will also mean regaining habits that we've lost. Keep in mind, it's important to not be harsh on ourselves to regain all those habits back immediately. Reincorporating them slowly can be frustrating, as we had already mastered them before. But if you are to regain control of your health and motivation, it's crucial to understand that you will need to regain a routine that goes hand in hand with your fitness," says Carneiro.
Similar to breaking down single tasks or goals, when building a whole new routine, start small with something like a morning walk each day before work or a simple stretching session at lunch. "Regain your motivation by taking small daily actions," advises Carneiro. Try tracking your habits to see how far you've come, adding more as you get comfortable. Keep your habits in line with your small, measurable goals.
Learn From Your Past
Self-reflection is a critical tool when trying to create new habits and find motivation that lasts. Why is your wellness routine not serving you currently? "Have you been inconsistent with your workouts? Or perhaps your eating habits? Maybe it was both. Think of what it was that you struggled with the most in the past so that you can think of ways to avoid the same mistakes moving forward," suggests Carneiro.
If you have struggled with motivation, writing down what you found most challenging and where you want to improve can help you get a clearer picture of your behaviors.
Don't Wait Around for Motivation
Motivation is a tricky beast. The level of gusto you have at the beginning of your new lifestyle might not always last. Similar to a honeymoon phase, excitement and newness can wear off. The trick is finding that deeper connection to your reasons for doing what you do.
"This doesn't mean you should keep waiting for change to happen. You must make the change happen on your own," says Carneiro.
"Motivation ebbs and flows, and it can be particularly difficult to stay motivated when you’re trying to do something new that might feel uncomfortable. While it may seem counterintuitive, pushing yourself to do something—even when you don’t feel like it—can jumpstart motivation and help you build momentum," advises Michaelides.
Sticking to your freshly minted habits requires patience and a realization that you can ride these ebbs and flows and still make progress, leading to a feeling of accomplishment. "Motivation also changes over time. In the beginning, you may gain momentum from crossing items off a to-do list. Over time, this can evolve into an association with something positive, like stress relief, increased energy, or even confidence," says Michaelides.
Remember that you are in control of how much effort and time you are willing to put into achieving your goals. "As long as you take ownership of that, everything else will come with time. The most important thing is continuing to move in the direction you want," says Carneiro.
Try Something Completely New
"Changing your environment can drastically change your way of doing things and your mindset. When you repeat the same actions, you slowly start losing interest in them. Instead, try a new aerobics class, a new trail to run, or a different fitness facility," suggests Carneiro.
Keeping your routine fresh can help prevent boredom for people who like change. Just remember that constantly switching up your training can prevent you from getting the best results. Try incorporating new moves into your warm-up, increasing your weight or reps each session, taking a new bike or running path, or adding a new recreational sport to your routine.
Scheduling time to focus on your goals is crucial because life can easily get in the way and zap your time. Michaelides shares this advice: "Take the decision-making out of initiating a new task. Sign up for the class ahead of time, pick out the workout clothes the night before, or set your sneakers in the right place to make following through on your plans as easy as possible."
"Even with the extra effort, it can be difficult to follow through at the moment, so plan ahead and decide what barriers are standing in your way ahead of time," adds Michaelides. "The key to consistent action is a solid plan. Remember to be flexible with your plan, too, in case new barriers arise, like the weather changing."
A strategic way to combat surprises is to have a plan B or even a plan C. If it's raining, what will you do instead? If you have to stay longer in a meeting for work, what kind of workout can you do with limited time? Plan ahead and have backup plans for these inevitable moments.
Be Kind to Yourself
Getting back into the swing of things doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing event. Be patient and kind to yourself as you navigate your newfound motivation.
Michaelides recommends being mindful of your inner critic and instead, being your own cheerleader. "Positive self-talk is not always an easy thing to develop," he says. "It is important to begin by noticing how we talk to ourselves. The more aware we are of our internal dialogue, the more we can begin to filter out unhelpful thinking."
If you aren't quite where you want to be, remind yourself of how far you've come and of your deeper reasons for wanting change. "Practice turning down the volume on those unhelpful thoughts (versus fighting them) and turning up the volume of helpful thoughts, such as 'I am putting in a lot of effort,' or 'I was able to complete other goals today,'" says Michaelides. "Think about the strengths you are employing each day. The longest relationship we will have in life is with ourselves—let’s make sure we love and cheer ourselves on."