Getting regular exercise is tough for a number of reasons: fatigue, busy schedules, the money factor. The last thing we need is to further doom a regimen by packing it with exercises we won't stick to.
Research suggests that 50 percent of people drop a new exercise program within the first six months. Yet it takes around six months to feel comfortable with a new sport, says Rick Henriksen, a family and preventive medicine physician with University of Utah Health Care. And competency is when the real fitness benefits kick in.
While motivation plays a big role in getting steady exercise, experts say some types of activities are "stickier" than others. Below are five of the most common routine-killers (cure them and you'll have activities that practically push you out the door):
1. It's high maintenance. Sure, hiking delivers a great workout, but "a five-hour hike doesn't sound good after work," Henriksen says. If your new favorite sport takes more than 1 to 2 hours, or requires good weather or a long commute, it's going to be hard to stay at it. Better to save it for special occasions and focus on something more flexible—ideally something that takes 30 to 60 minutes that you can easily do before or after work, he says.
Not that your daily workout has to be boring: "Fencing, swimming, pole dancing … there are lots of alternatives that are easy to do in the winter or when it's really hot outside," Henriksen says. And these are just a few of many activities you can do at local facilities that don't require more than an hour of your time.
2. You're going solo. Independent workouts might seem low maintenance, since you don't have to coordinate schedules or meeting places. But a social aspect is critical, Henriksen says. The extra effort to round up a fitness buddy pays off twice over, because you get a workout cheerleader (or someone to get your competitive juices flowing), and you're also roped in. "When you have a friend depending on you, you're much less likely to hit the snooze," he explains. You might consider trading running or cycling for something that takes you out of your comfort zone, say, Zumba or CrossFit, Henriksen says, because you'll be more likely to call in backup: "With the more alternative ones, you almost have to go with a buddy."
3. There's no formal commitment. When was the last time you backed out of an organized race? And when was the last time you skipped a planned run in the park? Chances are you answered never and last week, in that order. According to Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, we have an innate, near-obsessive drive to be consistent with what we've said we'll do.
By agreeing verbally or in writing, or making a monetary deposit, we're virtually locking ourselves into an activity. And happily so, says Cialdini, since committing also raises our esteem for the activity. But without that agreement, the door is pretty much wide open to grumble and ultimately change our minds. In fact, it may take little more than hunger pangs to thwart a non-committed-to exercise session.
4. You can't conquer it. "There's a sense of pride in accomplishing a new skill, and small victories bring you back for more," Henriksen says. On the other hand, if it will take you longer than three to six months to get the hang of your new activity, or if progress milestones are few and far between, you'll probably get discouraged, he says. Robbed of a sense of achievement, your confidence level will likely sink, in turn jinxing your performance or causing you to slack. What types of fitness activities are tough to conquer? Ones that aren't ideal for your body type or that require prior conditioning you don't have. Also, those where the skill level of the other athletes in the group is much higher than yours. Unrealistic goals in any activity can have a similarly sour effect on hustle.
5. It's unpopular. Think fads tend to fizzle and you'll have a better chance of adhering to tried-and-true exercise? If the principle of scarcity proves true, then it could be the opposite. Consider Bikram and suspension yoga, which, unlike standard yoga classes, tend to be offered to small groups at private studios. Cialdini, who researches the scarcity phenomenon, would say that packed classes and long waiting lists actually pique our interest, making us likely to perceive higher value and act quicker to secure our spots (could it be those competitive juices again?). As a regular suspension-yoga-goer, I can certainly back this up.
Then there's the phenomenon of social proof, whereby we're automatically driven to do what we see other people doing. If there's no one around you doing your sport, you won't have anyone to subconsciously mirror. Forget beating the crowds; wedging yourself into a corner in the popular class or joining the herd of joggers at the track could be a bigger boon to your motivation.
Love cycling solo for hours at a time, or picking the low-hanging fruit on the gym class schedule? Not to worry. You can boost any activity's staying power by making your goals ultra-specific, as well as writing them down—Cialdini says commitments are powerful even when they're only to ourselves. So pen down your goals and your workout schedule regularly. And if you have a blast doing your new sport, you shouldn't have much trouble staying with it: According to research on long-term exercise motivation, an activity you love is the stickiest of all.
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Chelsea Bush is a Utah-based journalist on a mission to tap the secrets of psychology to end laziness, cheeseburger addictions, and other annoying habits that keep us flabby. Join the cause here in the comments and at @chelseawriting.