How to stick to a workout program.

October 14th, 2009


Chances are good that you’re not going to end up looking like Jusup Wilkosz here, much less his training partner. But you certainly need to stick with your own fitness regime if you’re going to achieve what you’re capable of.So, how do you stick with a workout program? Here’s what works for me:

  • Have a big goal. Maybe it’s an experience you want to have, like running in the Boston Marathon. Maybe it’s a state you want to reach, for example to fit back into your wedding dress or your high school uniform by a certain birthday. But you need something out there as a backdrop to all your efforts.
  • Have little goals. If it’s going to take five years of hard work to go from couch pototo to Ironman finisher, you’re going to need a lot of interim goals along the way to keep you motivated. Fortunately, interim goals are easy to come by in fitness training. If you’re starting as a non-runner, you can feel a sense of achievement when you run a solid mile, then when you run two miles, then when you finish a mile in under 10 minutes, then when you finish three miles in under 30 minutes, and so on. If you use something like an elliptical machine, it’s the easiest thing in the world to track your progress in terms of distance, total strides, strides per minute, level of resistance, calories burned, et cetera. The increments are even easier to track if you’re lifting weights, since every single workout should feature some new breakthrough in the number of repetitions or the amount of weight you can lift. Cherish every one of these as a victory.
  • Track your progress. You have goals and you’re going for them, so why not keep track of how far you’ve come? Whether you use a spreadsheet, a word-processing document (like I do), or just a spiral notebook, tracking your progress allows you to train smarter — because you’re working from hard data, not approximations — and to enjoy the psychological boost of seeing your progress written down in black and white.
  • Plan your workouts. For two reasons: (1) You train better when you have a plan — again, based on hard data about your progress in previous workouts. In other words, you head into your workout with clear ideas about what you want to accomplish, instead of some vague notion that you’re there to “do some exercise.” (2) The very act of planning workouts, I find, makes them real in my mind. Once I’ve spent even a few minutes planning the workout and writing it up on an index card to take to the gym, it’s definite in my mind that I will go do that workout.
  • Plan for the logistics of working out. Set out your running shoes, socks, shorts, and shirt the night before. Pack the workout bag you’ll carry with you to the gym at lunchtime. Make a grocery run on the weekend to make sure you have healthy foods to eat during the week. Every step like this greases the wheels of your personal fitness engine, while reinforcing your psychological commitment to exercise as a normal part of your life.
  • Block out the time on your schedule. Several weeks back I went into the Outlook calendar system at work and blocked out my lunch hours, indefinitely, for working out. I told my boss that I’d be out of the office most days from 11:30 to 12:30 to lift weights. Again, this reinforces my internal commitment to exercise, while smoothing out the logistics of it in my working day.
  • Get a workout buddy. At the moment, I work out alone. But if you can, and especially if you’re a beginner, it can be a big help to find a friend with similar goals who’s willing to make the workout commitment with you. You’ll keep each other honest. It’s a lot harder to sleep through your 5:30 alarm if you know your pal will be waiting for you at the gym at 6:00.
  • Talk about fitness. Even though the logistics aren’t favorable for us to lift weights together, I have several friends at work and online with whom I regularly chat about lifting. We learn things from each other and give each other encouragement to climb the next mountain.
  • Take inspiration anywhere you can find it. More than once, friends from Twitter have said that they take heart from my own tweets about fitness. While I’m hardly Jack LaLanne, I do have an upbeat attitude and an evangelist’s zeal when it comes to working out, so I like to spread that feeling around. If you know anybody like this — even if it’s only via Twitter or a blog, by all means tap into them for encouragement. (Two to get you started: Dave Draper and World’s Strongest Librarian.)
  • Latch onto the positives of exercise in general. Too many people work out because they “have to,” because the doctor told them to, because they’re focused on how fat they are, or whatever. Impetus like this makes them dread something that should be highly enjoyable. Working out isn’t about pain and grief; it’s about maintaining and building your health and vitality so that you can get more out of life — regardless of where, when, or how you start. Don’t give in to dread. Once you find modes of exercise that you like, working out becomes a treat instead of a chore. By this point in my own life, I’d rather be deprived of beer, sweets, and television than of workouts, I enjoy them that much.

That’s my starter list. Now, what would YOU add?


(Photo from David van der Mark, used under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.)

10 Responses to “How to stick to a workout program.”

  1. Chris Bailey Says:

    Tim, I think one of the strongest things that’s helped me stick with my running program is sharing my progress via my social networks. The C25K app I use makes it easy to post updates to my Facebook page and I’ve received so many “congrats!” and other warm wishes from friends and family. It’s not what drives me to run and workout, but hearing how my determination to stick to my program is inspiring old high school friends to restart their exercise programs lets me know that I’m doing something good.

  2. Sarah Rehm Says:

    Routine, routine, routine. Once you block out your schedule and get into a routine, exercising at least 3x at week at the same time, you will go to workout without thinking… and without excuses.

  3. deb roby Says:

    One addendum to the list-for the beginner. Consider learning how to do it right from a personal trainer. Tell her/him one or two of the intermediate goals-and that long term goal. Take a few sessions to learn proper form and then let the trainer set up your workout plans for the first few months.

    Read. Books and online information. Learn what you can and do not be afraid to ask your community when you have a question.

  4. jenel farrell Says:

    Hear hear! I created a program for myself five months ago and feel great. I try to squeeze in a minimum of 5 hours of either moderate or intense activity a week. I jog some, but I also count walking. I bought a handful of workout DVDs that have been a big help for when I have a spare 20-40 min at home. Another helpful thing I’ve been doing is bringing my lunch to work. I eat a pb&j, a hard boiled egg, a yogurt, some fruit and nuts or carrots throughout the day, use my lunch for a walk, and feel great when I leave work. It has really helped! I’ve lost 7 lbs. and feel good.

  5. Shane Kinkennon Says:

    Brilliant!!! Goals, goals, goals. I know a few people who can stick to a regimen with lack of goals, but not many.

    And “Plan for the logistics” is fantastic. I’m working that angle with my 78 year old mother right now. “Check the weather the night before and put out a light jacket if you need to. Put your most comfortable shoes beside the bed. Lay them out in an over-the-top orderly fashion. Get the coffee maker ready before you go to bed. Don’t let details get in the way of that 3-block walk that you so desperately need.

    Thanks for posting Tim.

  6. William Nikosey Says:

    Logistics are key. My gym is smack dab in the middle of the office and my apartment. As long as I have my gym bag with me my attendance is perfect.

    Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.


  7. Tim Walker Says:

    Chris — Love the community support; it’s an extended version of having a workout buddy.

    Sarah — Amen re making it routine. The quality of my fitness regime improved IMMENSELY as soon as I blocked off the time in Outlook.

    Deb — Absolutely in agreement about getting yourself educated. Though I’ve been at it a long time and don’t need the same pointers a beginner would, I learn something new every week from the trainers on duty at my gym.

    Jenel — Congratulations on your progress! I’m with you: ironing out my food during the workday has been a BIG deal. Also: it would never work for me to use workout DVDs, but that’s great — each of us must find our OWN ways to stick with it.

    Shane — A dead-simple piece of logistics that has helped me: I preload several shaker bottles with protein powder so that whenever I need one I grab it, pour in water, and GO. Even an itty-bitty thing like that can work wonders.

  8. Leigh Scott Says:

    The education I received from my personal trainer has been pivotal in my workout/get back in to shape program…… What to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, when to stop eating in the day, water, water, water….. The motivation of being accountable to someone other than myself for goals that only I set for myself has been a big factor in staying with the program…. for me. He’s responsible for my weight training regime and I am responsible for cardio…. I thought I knew a lot but in reality I knew very little about fitness….

    Lastly, I have learned that it is OK to be selfish and put yourself first over others in your life for awhile until you get to where you want to be… at the end of the day you are a better wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend because you feel better about yourself.

  9. H. Georg Says:

    This one’s really simple: try different sports/activities until you find one you really like. I personally hate to work out and have never been athletically inclined, so exercising has always been a chore. However, a few months ago, I took up Bikram yoga, and it’s not just an intense workout, but also a mental exercise in discipline and persistence, and pure me-time, which isn’t easy to get as a stay-at-home mom.

  10. Tim Walker Says:

    Excellent point, Ms. Georg — we’re all much likelier to stick with a workout program that we enjoy, rather than just doing it “because it’s good for me.”

    I know that some people CANNOT stick with a solo workout program, so they attend group classes or get a trainer. I’m geared quite the other way, so for myself it would be grating to attend classes or to use a trainer beyond an initial ramp-up phase.

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