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Sure, working out is good for us, but what if we’re just not in the mood? As in, totally not in the mood. Is there hope?

Yes. Research shows that even our most slothful selves can get active, stick with the program, and (shocker) enjoy it.

The key is reframing how we think about physical activity. Fitness is usually sold to us as something that will help us live longer and reduce our risk of chronic disease. While this is true and great, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily motivate us in the moment to do pushups instead of downing Doritos. These four approaches work better.

#1 Ask: What will it do for me right now?

Immediate benefits—like relaxation, joy, stress relief, and sharp thinking—are far more motivating than the distant prospect of better health, according to behavioral scientists.

Identify the immediate perks:
a better mood, increased energy, a brainpower boost, stress relief, sharper focus, and positive feelings for yourself.

Play workout music:
For a rapid attitude adjustment, try the latest trap beat.

“Remind yourself how good you will feel after, and how, after time, it will get easier and easier.”
—Kelly S., second-year student, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina

“I think of how much better I will feel even if I just get up for a few minutes. It will elevate my mood.”
—Ed W., second-year student, Mount Wachusett Community College, Massachusetts

How & why to focus on the now

“Helping people identify the ways they feel better immediately is the true driver of our decision to be active,” says Dr. Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. “Research shows that we are more motivated by rewards that we immediately experience than by ones we have to wait for in the future.”

How you work it

“I love to lift weights or go for a nice walk. Either way, I get a chance to reflect on my day and clear my head, or I get to plan for the day ahead.”
—Abigail W., fourth-year student, Elizabethtown College, Pennsylvania

“I’ll remember the time I was in a dull meeting and had to run outside to grab something, then how much more alert I felt afterward.”
—Jerome G., third-year student, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

“I love yoga. It’s a strength-focused activity, and it also helps you to reframe your way of thinking about any difficulty you’re feeling.”
—Anna T., first-year graduate student, California State University, San Bernardino

“I usually put music on that makes me feel pumped up or gives me a bunch of energy. How can you not get up and move when you hear music like EDM or House?”
—Kyla C., first-year student, Antelope Valley College, California

“Running gives me a chance to clear my head.”
—Michael B., online student, University of Massachusetts Lowell

+ Feel the rush of a YouTube dance workout

#2 Mind trick: “This is so not about fitness”

Some physical activities don’t feel like exercise, with its clinical associations. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, many students described fitness as a mind game.

Lose the rules:
“Toss out any rules you might have about how to exercise, because research shows you won’t keep it up [if those rules don’t reflect your feelings],” says Dr. Michelle Segar, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (Amacom, 2015).

Give yourself permission: 
Move in ways that feel good to you and work with your schedule. “If all you can fit in is an extra five minutes a day, make that your plan and go from there,” says Dr. Segar.

“I combine it with something fun. If I don’t want to work out, I will clean the kitchen to loud music and kind of dance while I clean.”
—Johanna S., second-year graduate student, Metropolitan State University, Minnesota

“I make a point of walking to a further grocery store to save money. So I get motivated to walk by tying an errand with the bonus of saving money.”
—Jared D., online student, Algonquin College

Why & how to make it about something else

“When someone hates exercise, I’ve found that they hate it most often because they are [participating] in activities they don’t like, at higher intensities [than they like], or in places they don’t like,” says Dr. Segar. What works? Doing stuff you like, at a pace you like, in places you like.

How you work it

“Something with a sense of adventure always gets me moving, like kayaking or hiking.”
—Second-year student, name & school withheld

“Dancing. I can always get up and dance around. Sometimes after that, I feel like running or doing circuits in my house, like mountain climbers and burpees.”
—Renee G., second-year student, Hawkeye Community College, Iowa

“Playing with my kids. They love being at the park and I’m getting physically active chasing them around.”
—James C., recent graduate, Indian Hills Community College, Iowa

“Pool therapy [exercising in water] is the only form of physical activity I am able to really enjoy. I remind myself that it is relaxing and try to visualize my body getting stronger.”
—Anna H., third-year graduate student, Emory University, Georgia

“Take a trip to browse a store I haven’t been to in a while. Not really with the intention of buying anything, but to wander around as an excuse to get myself walking.”
—John C., first-year graduate student, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

“Physical activities that are fun, such as tubing and swimming, will always get me interested despite how lethargic I feel.”
—Rory A., third-year student, Hudson Valley Community College, New York

“Cleaning is a sure fire way to get your body moving.”
—Second-year graduate student, name & school withheld

#3 Claim a tangible reward

Try associating fitness with a tangible reward. Again, this gets to those immediate benefits. If you’re someone who is motivated to avoid penalties, use that too.

Set a goal and relish the reward:
Maybe it’s only at the gym that you can watch the next episode on Netflix. Maybe you get a smoothie afterwards.

Consider a commitment contract:
“For example, you give money to a friend. If you hit your exercise target, you get the money back, but if you don’t, your friend gets to keep it,” says Dr. Fred Zimmerman, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches exercise behavior. “Or the money would be donated to the opposite political party than which you agree or a group you’re not too fond of. This way, missing your goal is painful.”

“I tell myself that I can only watch a really cool TV show when I’m working out.”
—Kellie D., second-year graduate student, Portland State University, Oregon

Why & how to claim your prize

+ StickK
This free goal-setting platform leverages the power of incentives and accountability; its creators (Yale researchers) say it more than triples your chances of success.

+ Pact
This app pays you when you meet your goals. Fair warning: If you don’t, your money goes to other users who hit theirs. 

Be self-aware about your reward system—e.g., “Watch the revolving door effect if food becomes a reward for exercise,” says Beth Blackett, peer health outreach coordinator at Queen’s University, Ontario.

How you work it

“Create a routine with a motivating reward at the end/during. I get to listen to a favorite podcast while I work out, for instance.”
—Jennifer M., fourth-year graduate student, University of California, Los Angeles

“Listen to an audio book, but only while exercising. Hearing how a story ends is motivating to exercise.”
—Chris P., fifth-year student, University of Kansas

“Tie physical activities to other things as rewards. For example: If I walk X number of steps today or do X minutes of cardio, then I can buy a new song on iTunes or set aside some time for myself to do something fun (like play guitar).”
—Patrice N., fourth-year graduate student, University of Maryland, College Park

“I motivate myself by using rewards for working out. If there is something I would like to spend time or money doing, I will use that as leverage.”
—Second-year graduate student, name & school withheld

Student having fun while exercising

#4 Get with your fit friends

“If our friends work out regularly and support our exercise goals we are more likely to exercise,” says Dr. Xiaomeng Xu, professor of psychology at Idaho State University. Working out in a pair, team, or group introduces cues to action, accountability, and reward.

Make a plan with a friend: Imagine the awkward if you don’t show up.

“Make a workout date with your significant other or a friend and make a plan so you won’t back out of it.”
—Kerry C., third-year student, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina

“I get a friend to do the activities with me. Joining a sports team or working out together is more fun and makes you kind of compete.”
—Steven K., first-year graduate student, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee

Find your people: It helps when your crowd includes some active types.

Watch other people being active:
If not in real life, on TV or online. In our survey, students said they were motivated by images on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Why & how the buddy system works

In a 2013 study involving 480 college students, “having an exercise partner” and “having a friend who exercises” were rated among the top motivators for physical activity (along with wanting to look physically fit), according to the Archives of Exercise in Health and Disease.

How you work it

“I drive myself to the gym. By seeing others exercising, I naturally become involved whether or not I want it.”
—Cooper B., third-year graduate student, Park University, Missouri

“I committed to a softball team. I cannot let others down.”
—Elizabeth D., fourth-year student, Empire State College, New York

“I choose to call a friend and it seems to give me the extra boost to get moving. We usually end up riding bikes and get to talk along the way.”
—Kayla R., first-year student, Iowa Western Community College

“I always get motivation if I do something with someone else. It can be as small as going for a walk. But once I start walking I will get the motivation to do more.”
—Kat Z., fifth-year student, Montgomery College, Maryland

“If I can play soccer, go swimming with friends, or do some martial arts, it gets me excited to get up and get active. I’m a very sociable person, so I thrive on others to get energy and to have fun.”
—Kerry C., third-year student, Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina

More ways to make it social

Team up 

Join an intramural team—maybe dodgeball, softball, or bowling.

Shake it out

Find a dance class: hip hop, Zumba®, jazz, break dancing, Bollywood. You know it will be a riot.

Get your quidditch on

  • It started in J. K. Rowling’s fictional wizarding world and has become a legit sport.
    + Quidditch
  • To act out your favorite characters, try Live Action Role Playing (LARPing)
    + LARP

Conquer life’s obstacles

Does belly crawling through mud sound like your idea of a good time? No? All the more reason to try it. The beginner’s version, a Spartan Sprint, is about three miles long and has more than 20 obstacles (think fire pits and barbed wire). By the end of the course, your new muddy look will be all over Instagram.
+ Spartan Race®

Walk it out 

Walk with a group or on your own. Pass the time by downloading your favorite podcast or audiobook or chatting with a friend.

More than 64 percent of college students engage in moderate cardiovascular or aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes on two or more days a week.
—American College Health Association – National College Health Assessment; September 2014

Your best instagram

Shaney Swank

Metropolitan State University of Denver

“It was basically a giant playground with extra mud. It was easy not to think about it as a workout because there were monkey bars, giant slides, and huge mud baths that just remind you of being a kid!”

Show us how you get active without it feeling like a workout.
Use the hashtags #accidentalfitness and #SH101

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