21 Powerful Ways to Stay Motivated to Work Out

Taking those first steps can be SO hard.

When you feel bad about being out of shape, don’t have a lot of free time, and don’t know where to start, just getting going on a workout plan can feel impossible.

The truth is, you just have to start. Even if all you can muster is a walk around the block and throwing an extra serving of salad on your plate, it’s something you can build off of!

After about 3 years of working out consistently and never missing a work out (other than vacation!) I’ve come up with a few tips and tricks for how to stay motivated to workout.

(And I’ve gathered a few more based on scientific research and studies.)

How to stay motivated to work out

To stay motivated to workout, I follow a precise workout and nutrition plan so I always know what to do, compete against myself and previous personal records, and make fitness a part of my lifestyle rather than chasing temporary weight loss goals.

But that’s what works for me.

Here are 21 ways to get or stay motivated on your own fitness journey.

1. Have a plan

This is my top tip for good reason.

Going to the gym and winging it is a decent start, but you’ll inevitably fall off the wagon if you’re not making progress toward your goals.

Following a solid workout program is the best way to make sure that never happens.

It’ll tell you exactly what workouts to do on which day, and how to ensure you’re getting in better and better shape the whole time.

Start with my guide to free workout plans you can start right now.

2. Compete

Bring out your inner competitor!

Compete against yourself from last week or other people in your fitness class.

Me? I like to try to lift heavier or for more reps than my own previous personal bests. It’s what keeps me motivated and inspired to keep working.

Other people love the interactive “leaderboards” at places like Orangetheory or Cyclebar.

Find what works for you.

Research note: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found students who had access to a “leaderboard” of how often their friends were attending exercise classes were far more likely to attend themselves versus control groups and groups where the students only supported each other with no competition element.

3. Make it fun

Gamifying your workouts is a great way to make sure you keep doing them!

You might like console-based games on the Nintendo Switch or other workout games you can do in your living room.

Or you might get a kick out of apps like Zombies Run, a 5k trainer disguised as an immersive audio adventure.

Better still, check out a streaming service like Beachbody on Demand and try their hip-hop or even country-music themed dance workouts!

Research note: Studies indicate that when workouts are framed as fun, rather than pure exercise, you might be less likely to overindulge in food and snacks later as a “reward.”

4. Enlist a friend

Working out alone can be an amazing and empowering experience, but it’s not for everyone.

If you’re struggling with motivation and accountability, get a friend or workout buddy to join you at the gym, regular runs, or fitness classes.

The downside to this method is that you can become dependent on that person, and if they lose the will to keep working out, they might take you down with them.

But it’s a great way to get started. Just make sure you eventually find ways to self-motivate!

Research note: All other factors being equal, people with a workout buddy tend to exercise more, and more consistently, than those who go it alone, studies say.

5. Build the habit

The old belief was that it took people about 21 days of doing an activity repeatedly in order for it to become ingrained as a habit.

More modern research actually pegs that number at 66. 66 days to form a habit, or in other words, something you do every day (or most days) with very little variation.

So think of working out this way. You don’t have to grind it out forever, you just have to force yourself to do it regularly for about 66 days.

After that, it won’t feel so hard.

(If you need some tips on how to have a good experience your first day at the gym, start here.)

6. Take photos

When you look in the mirror, it can be hard to see day to day changes to your body.

So when you’re busting your butt waking up early to hit the gym, and not seeing results, you can easily lose steam.

This is one reason you should get a good set of “before” pictures.

Strip down to your undies and get shots from a few different angles.

Take progress pictures as you go, and if you ever need a pick-me-up, refer back to your earliest photos and you’ll likely be shocked how far you’ve come (even when it doesn’t feel like it).

7. Track everything

Keep a workout log.

Write down your miles run, weights lifted, and other exercises performed each and every day.

If you’re new to tracking your macros and counting calories, a food journal might help, too.

You need to know exactly what you’re doing (and what you’ve done), so you know what to tweak to continue getting better and better results.

Here’s a pretty cool combo set fitness journal and nutrition journal on Amazon you might dig.

8. Use rewards

Working out is hard work. It’s OK to reward yourself for doing a good job now and then!

Steer clear of gorging yourself with indulgent desserts and massive dinners. You’ll just undo your progress.

Instead, look for smaller ways to treat yourself, like:

  • Put a dollar in a jar every time you workout, then build up your stash to buy some new gear
  • Earn your nightly Netflix binge with a kick-ass workout during the day
  • Have a (small) treat; it won’t kill you!
  • Reward yourself with a glass of wine to unwind in the evening

You can even try an app like Achievement to track your workouts and nutrition progress; you’ll earn points there you can eventually redeem for cash or charity donations. Pretty cool!

9. Use punishments

Alternatively, you could decide some kind of consequences or punishments for not sticking with your workout plan.

You don’t want to be too severe and wind up developing an unhealthy relationship with nutrition and exercise!

But you could try an app or service that helps keep you on track.

An accountability app like StickK, for example, helps you create a commitment contract (“I will work out 3x per week,” or “I will lose 10 pounds”) and assigns either an impartial referee to monitor your progress, or allows you to put money on the line!

Don’t meet your commitment? The money gets sent off to charity.

10. Make it productive

I like to mitigate some of my vices by pairing them with more productive tasks.

For example, if I’m going to allow myself to go down the YouTube rabbit hole, I might as well be doing the dishes while I watch.

You could do the same thing with your workouts.

Want to listen to a podcast, watch TV, or check out an audiobook?

Might as well get in some time on the treadmill while you do it!

You still get to do the thing you want to do, and you get to check off your workout at the same time.

11. Use positive self-talk

It sounds a little corny, but talking yourself up (“You can do this!”) is actually an extremely effective motivation tool.

According to Healthline, self-talk can:

  • Improve athletic performance
  • Boost your mood
  • Increase motivation
  • And lead to better overall well-being

Next time you don’t feel like working out, give it a try.

“You’re going to crush this workout! You’ve got this!”

Say it again and again until you believe it.

12. Create a lifestyle, not a destination

Shift your thinking.

Instead of “I will diet until I lose 10 pounds,” or “I will work out until I get a six-pack,” focus on how you can create a healthier lifestyle, day in and day out, forever.

Find workouts you enjoy.

Learn to love healthier food and create portions that fill you up without making you feel guilty.

The secret to getting fit is that the six-pack actually won’t make you happy or change your life in any significant way unless you enjoy yourself on the journey.

(A lot of people give up when they realize their goals aren’t completely under their control. Meaning, you can do everything right but still not lose the 10 pounds you wanted. Make the process your goal and you’ll never lose.)

13. Tackle small goals

That said, small tangible victories along the way are HUGE when it comes to staying motivated.

Depending on your current fitness level, you could work your way up to:

  • Just running a mile without a stop
  • Doing your first push up
  • Completing a pull-up
  • Shaving 30 seconds off your one-mile time
  • Etc.

You can quickly accomplish and build on these mini-goals, and if you do, you’ll always find something new you’re excited to work towards.

Research note: Experts agree that goals should be: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, and Realistic to achieve in a certain Timeframe. (The SMART approach). You’ll also need a plan for how to make them happen if you want to be successful.

14. Use visualization and memories

Here’s another one that sounds wonky, but really works:

Visualize yourself achieving your goals and having a kick-ass workout, and it becomes more likely to actually happen.

Plenty of studies have compared people who visualize themselves completing a task vs others who don’t, and the visualization has been proven to correlate with higher success rates.

It’s even been studied specifically in exercise and weightlifting!

If you can’t bring yourself to get off the couch, think back to a time when you completed a challenging task, or visualize yourself getting up and going to work out.

It really helps!

15. Buy new clothes or gear

When you look good, you feel good.

It’s a fact!

Ditch the ratty old hand-me-down clothes and invest in some nicer gear.

When you put it on, you’ll feel great and you’ll be ready to tackle your workout with full force.

16. Eliminate excuses with home workouts

No time to workout?

Can’t afford an expensive gym membership?

(First of all, you need to visit the Trusty Spotter homepage!)

Get yourself set up to do some quick but effective workouts at home, even without equipment.

I’ve already suggested the Beachbody streaming workout service, but if you want something free, you can pretty much create an entire full-body fitness program around the Johnson & Johnson 7-Minute Workout app.

It’s free and takes 7 minutes to complete! No one can claim they don’t have the time to fit that in at least two or three times per week.

(Search for it in your phone’s app store.)

17. Schedule it

Still struggling to find the time?

Put your workouts on the calendar.

It’s up to you when and where it fits in, whether that means blocking your calendar at lunch to go for a mid-work-day jog, or scheduling an early wake-up to crank out a HIIT workout in your living room.

Make a date and a commitment to yourself to get it done, and protect that time from outside forces like your life depends on it!

(And check out my guide to working out when you work too much.)

18. Mix up variety

I’m the kind of person who likes to do the same couple of workouts (more or less) over and over and over again so that I can continue to get a little bit better each time.

You might be the kind of person who’d be bored to tears by that.

And that’s OK!

Try a bunch of different stuff and feel free to always switch things up.

Variety is great for staying motivated, and it presents new challenges to your body and fitness levels.

You can sign-up for something like ClassPass and hop around between different workout studios endlessly, or just try a bunch out on your own first (your first class is almost always free).

19. Do it for the ‘Gram

I wrote above that competition is more motivating than support, at least according to science, but why not do both?

Take a few post-workout selfies and pop them on social media. Who cares if it’s cliche, honestly?

You’ll get positive feedback and support from your friends and family, and that just might be the push you need to keep going toward the next workout.

20. Sign up for a race, contest, or show

I once knew a girl who signed up for an amateur swimsuit competition just so she’d be incredibly motivated to get in amazing shape.

I don’t think she actually competed, and I’m not sure if she ever intended to, but with that contest date looming on her calendar, she kicked her butt into high gear.

You can do something similar.

Sign up for a Tough Mudder or other obstacle race. Start training for a simple 5K. Or sign up for an amateur physique contest if you feel so inspired!

Give yourself a deadline and an event to train for; it can work wonders.

21. Put your money where your mouth is

Working out for free at home is incredibly convenient and easy to stick to.

But sometimes, because it’s so easy, it can be easy to blow off.

Joining a gym or fitness class and paying real money every month? Not so easy to ignore! You’ll feel pretty bad wasting the money if you don’t show up, so that should help keep you motivated.

(Though you should still get a good deal. Read my guide on how to negotiate your gym membership.)

I also love the idea behind apps like Healthy Wage — you can literally bet on yourself to reach your fitness goals (like losing weight), and earn (or lose!) real money when you follow through.

Wrapping Up

Not all of these motivational tricks will work for everyone, and you might want to toy with and combine a few different tactics to help you stay on track.

My favorite ways to stay motivated to work out? Following a plan, competing against myself, and living a fit lifestyle (as opposed to chasing temporary goals).

But you do you! I just hope, whatever you do, you find a way to make regular workouts and eating right a part of your life.

Let me know some of your favorite tricks in the comments, and scroll down to find out how you can keep up with more of my best motivational strategies for staying in shape.

And I hope this helped!