When it comes to exercise, we think about how to “get” fit. But often, starting out is not the problem. “The big problem is maintaining it,” says Falko Sniehotta, a professor of behavioural medicine and health psychology at Newcastle University. The official United Kingdom guidelines say adults should do strength exercises, as well as 150 minutes of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, every week. According to the Health Survey for England in 2016, 34 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women are not hitting the aerobic exercise targets, and even more — 69 per cent and 77 per cent, respectively — are not doing enough strengthening activity.
A report from the World Health Organisation found that people in the UK were among the least active in the world, with 32 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women reporting inactivity. Meanwhile, obesity is adding to the chronic long-term diseases.
We all know we should be doing more, but how do we keep moving when our motivation slips, the weather takes a turn for the worse or life gets in the way? Try these pieces of advice from experts to keep you going:
1. Work out why, don’t just work out
Our reasons for beginning to exercise are fundamental to whether we will keep it up, says Michelle Segar, the director of the University of Michigan’s Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center. Too often “society promotes exercise and fitness by hooking into short-term motivation, guilt and shame”. There is some evidence, she says, that younger people will go to the gym more if their reasons are appearance-based, but past our early 20s that doesn’t fuel motivation much. Nor do vague or future goals help (“I want to get fit, I want to lose weight”). Segar, the author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, says we will be more successful if we focus on immediate positive feelings such as stress reduction, increased energy and making friends. “The only way we are going to prioritise time to exercise is if it is going to deliver some kind of benefit that is truly compelling and valuable to our daily life,” she says.
2. Get off to a slow start
The danger of the typical resolutions on fitness, says personal trainer Matt Roberts, is that people “jump in and do everything — change their diet, start exercising, stop drinking and smoking — and within a couple of weeks they have lost motivation or got too tired. If you haven’t been in shape, it’s going to take time.”
3. You don’t have to love it
It is helpful not to try to make yourself do things you actively dislike, says Segar, who advises thinking about the types of activities — roller-skating? Bike riding? — you liked as a child. But don’t feel you have to really enjoy exercise. “A lot of people who stick with exercise say: ‘I feel better when I do it.’” There are elements that probably will be enjoyable, though, such as the physical response of your body and the feeling of getting stronger, and the pleasure that comes with mastering a sport.
“For many people, the obvious choices aren’t necessarily the ones they would enjoy,” says Sniehotta, who is also the director of the National Institute for Health Research’s policy research unit in behavioural science. “so they need to look outside them. It might be different sports or simple things, like sharing activities with other people.”
4 Be kind to yourself
Individual motivation — or the lack of it — is only part of the bigger picture. Money, parenting demands or even where you live can all be stumbling blocks, says Sniehotta. Tiredness, depression, work stress or ill family members can all have an impact on physical activity. “If there is a lot of support around you, you will find it easier to maintain physical activity,” he points out. “To conclude that people who don’t get enough physical activity are just lacking motivation is problematic.”
Segar suggests being realistic. “Skip the ideal of going to the gym five days a week. Be really analytical about work and family-related needs when starting, because if you set yourself up with goals that are too big, you will fail and you’ll feel like a failure. At the end of a week, I always ask my clients to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Maybe fitting in a walk at lunch worked, but you didn’t have the energy after work to do it.”
5 Don’t rely on willpower
“If you need willpower to do something, you don’t really want to do it,” says Segar. Instead, think about exercise “in terms of why we’re doing it and what we want to get from physical activity. How can I benefit today? How do I feel when I move? How do I feel after I move?”
6. Find a purpose
Anything that allows you to exercise while ticking off other goals will help, says Sniehotta. “It provides you with more gratification, and the costs of not doing it are higher.” For instance, walking or cycling to work, or making friends by joining a sports club, or running with a friend. Try to combine physical activity with something else. “For example, in my workplace, I don’t use the lift and I try to reduce email, so when it’s possible I walk over to people,” says Sniehotta. “Over the course of the day, I walk to work, I move a lot in the building and I actually get about 15,000 steps. Try to make physical activity hit as many meaningful targets as you can.”
7. Make it a habit
When you take up running, it can be tiring just getting out of the door — where are your shoes? Your water bottle? What route are you going to take? After a while, points out Sniehottta, “there are no longer costs associated with the activity”. Doing physical activity regularly and planning for it “helps make it a sustainable behaviour”. Missing sessions doesn’t.
8. Plan and prioritise
What if you don’t have time to exercise? For many people, working two jobs or with extensive caring responsibilities, this can undoubtedly be true, but is it genuinely true for you? It might be a question of priorities, says Sniehotta. He recommends planning: “The first is ‘action planning’, where you plan ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ you are going to do it and you try to stick with it.” The second type is ‘coping planning’: “Anticipating things that can get in the way and putting a plan in place for how to get motivated again.” Segar adds: “Most people don’t give themselves permission to prioritise self-care behaviours like exercise.”
9. Keep it short and sharp
A workout doesn’t have to take an hour, says Roberts. “A well-structured 15-minute workout can be really effective if you really are pressed for time.” As for regular, longer sessions, he says: “You tell yourself you’re going to make time and change your schedule accordingly.”
10. If it doesn’t work, change it
If previous exercise regimes haven’t worked, don’t beat yourself up or try them again — just try something else. “We tend to be in the mindset that if you can’t lose weight, you blame it on yourself. However, if you could change that to — ‘This method doesn’t work for me, let’s try something different’ — there is a chance it will be better for you and prevent you from having to blame yourself,” says Seiger.
11. Add resistance and balance training as you get older
“We start to lose muscle mass over the age of around 30,” says Hollie Grant, a personal training and pilates instructor, and the owner of PilatesPT. Resistance training (using body weight, such as press-ups, or equipment, such as resistance bands) is important, she says: “It is going to help keep muscle mass or at least slow down the loss. There needs to be some form of aerobic exercise, too, and we would also recommend people start adding balance challenges because our balance is affected as we get older.”
12. Work out from home
If you have caring responsibilities, Roberts says you can do a lot within a small area at home. “In a living room, it is easy to do a routine where you might alternate between doing a leg exercise and an arm exercise,” he says. “It’s called Peripheral Heart Action training. Doing six or eight exercises, this effect of going between the upper and lower body produces a pretty strong metabolism lift and cardiovascular workout.” Try squats, half press-ups, lunges, tricep dips and glute raises. “You’re raising your heart rate, working your muscles and having a good general workout.” These take no more than 15-20 minutes and only require a chair for the tricep dips — although dumbbells can be helpful, too.
13. Get out of breath
We are often told that housework and gardening can contribute to our weekly exercise targets, but is it that simple? “The measure really is you’re getting generally hot, out of breath, and you’re working at a level where, if you have a conversation with somebody while you’re doing it, you’re puffing a bit,” says Roberts. “With gardening, you’d have to be doing the heavier gardening — digging — not just weeding. If you’re walking the dog, you can make it into a genuine exercise session — run with the dog, or find a route that includes some ground gradients.”
14. Be sensible about illness
The Joslyn Thompson Rule. A personal trainer, says: “The general rule is if it’s above the neck — a headache or a cold — while being mindful of how you’re feeling, you are generally OK to do some sort of exercise. If it’s below the neck — if you’re having trouble breathing — rest. The key thing is to be sensible. If you were planning on doing a high-intensity workout, you would take the pace down, but sometimes just moving can make you feel better.” After recovering from an illness, she says, trust your instincts. “You don’t want to go straight back into training four times a week. You might want to do the same number of sessions, but make them shorter, or do fewer.”