7 Psychologists Explain How to Master the Mental Side of Fitness

Sure, putting up a heavy bench press or running a 5K are difficult.

But the hardest thing about working out isn’t the physical effort, it’s the mental grind of sticking with it day in and day out.

How do you get and stay motivated to work out?

Sure there are a lot of tips and tricks out there, but I decided to go to the real experts to get the inside scoop.

I recently interviewed 7 psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors to find out how they coach their own clients to set and meet fitness goals.

Here’s what they said.

Nikki Rubin – Cultivate willingness, not motivation

Motivation is a fleeting emotion according to Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Sure, it’s great when you can ride a wave of motivation and get a lot of stuff done, or get in a killer workout.

But what happens when you inevitably wake up and don’t feel motivated?

You need to cultivate willingness, she says, which means confronting your negative feelings (“I don’t feel like working out”) and being willing to do the hard work anyway.

It’ll get you a lot farther than relying on feeling super motivated every single week.

Find more from Dr. Rubin at the East Meets West podcast.

Ned Presnall – Utilize behavioral engineering

Clinical social worker Ned Presnall says you have to use some creative engineering tricks to get and keep yourself moving.

Start with the beginning, he says, which is the hardest part.

Remove any obstacles you might have to the very start of your workout. If you’re trying to wake up early, put your alarm across the room. Set your clothes out the night before.

Eliminate any excuses or roadblocks.

He also advises that community is one of the keys to sticking to any habit in the long term. Find a workout buddy, group, or community gym that keeps you engaged and coming back.

Find more from Ned Presnall at Plan Your Recovery.

Alan Chu – Set process goals, not outcome goals

Goals are a good thing to have when you’re just getting started in fitness.

But you have to go about setting them the right way.

Performance consultant Dr. Alan Chu says you want to set process goals and not outcome goals.

Outcome goals are too big and far away, like being able to run a 10K when you’ve never run a single mile before.

Process goals are small things you can conquer every day, week, or month — like just putting on your running shoes and getting out of the house, to running a few miles per week.

The smaller daily goals will give you a sense of victory and accomplishment that keep you going when things get tough.

Find more from Dr. Alan Chu at University of Wisconsin Green Bay.

Markesha Miller – Use successive approximation to celebrate small wins

Dr. Markesha Miller echoes the idea that big, far away goals aren’t great for keeping us motivated.

She advises that we should learn to celebrate little victories like showing up to the gym or walking around the block.

When you stack these habits over weeks, months, and years — big changes can happen.

She also encourages busy people to experiment with working out at different times of the day. There are 24 hours in a day, she says, so there’s no excuse for not finding at least a few minutes to move toward your fitness goals.

Find more from Dr. Markesha Miller here.

Bruce Thiessen – Adopt an internal locus of control

Dr. Bruce Thiessen, or Dr. BLT as he’s known, says the key is to take the reins of your own life and fitness journey.

People with an external locus of control allow outside factors to determine their outcomes. The gym is closed, life is busy, things are hard, etc. — so they don’t put in the work.

People with an internal locus of control find a way regardless of the circumstances. They realize they have control over their own destiny.

It’s a simple but powerful distinction that can change your life if you’re willing to adopt it.

He also advises to replace your food fantasies (“This junk food will feel good and comfort me”) with fitness fantasies (imagine yourself meeting lofty goals) in order to avoid stress binges.

Find more from Dr. BLT here.

Richelle Whittaker – Focus on the payoff

Dr. Whittaker says people don’t do anything unless there’s some kind of benefit in it for them.

So when it comes to working out, figure out what benefit you’re most excited about and use it to keep yourself going.

Some people are motivated most by physical changes. Seeing the scale go down, watching clothes fit better, or even just feeling more confident in their body.

Others use exercise to boost their mental health. Regular workouts can reduce anxiety and ease depression, she says.

Find out what matters most to you and remind yourself that your tough workout has a nice payoff waiting at the end.

Find more from Dr. Whittaker at Providential Counseling.

Jacob Kountz – Visualize your ideal self

Visualization is a powerful and under-utilized tool, according to counselor Jacob Kountz.

He cites a study in which athletes who visualized their own improved performance actually outperformed their peers in a control group who did more physical practice and training.

It’s a slippery slope, he warns, so don’t focus too much on comparing yourself to fitness models and pro athletes.

Instead, focus on the best version of YOU and compare yourself to your own previous bests. Strive for 1% improvement every day, week, or month — it really adds up over time.

Find more from Jacob Kountz at Kern Wellness Counseling.

Wrapping Up

So much good advice, so little time!

A lot of the psychologists and mental health experts I spoke with focused on two things:

  • Setting good goals
  • Finding community

If you can learn to give yourself manageable goals that you can achieve quickly and realistically, along with finding a workout partner or group to hold you accountable, you’ll be far ahead of 90% of beginners.

What’s the biggest thing that’s kept you motivated to workout?

For more on this, check out my complete guide to how to stay motivated to workout.

And check out more from Trusty Spotter on YouTube: How to crush your first day at the gym