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How to Start Working Out When You Don't Know Where to Begin

4 min read

Trying to figure out how to start working out again after taking a break? It doesn't have to be hard—just follow these science-backed tips.
Trying to figure out how to start working out again after taking a break? It doesn't have to be hard—just follow these science-backed tips.

Whether you took a little break from working out or are looking to establish a more consistent fitness routine in general, we get it: Dragging yourself to the gym after a hiatus can be a daunting task. But the good news is that if you play it right, taking that first step will be the hardest part—and then you’ll be well on your way to making it a habit.

Like any Ritual, it ultimately comes down to a careful balance: It’s useful to understand the general science of habit formation, but it’s also up to you to fill the gaps with your own emotional profile and needs. We all have different things that motivate us, and that’s definitely true in the realm of exercise—which is why a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach (“just start going to the gym five days a week!”) can result in quick burnout.

So let’s take a look at the science and try something different, shall we?

Pick something you’ll actually enjoy.

Particularly around the start of the new year, it’s easy to get swept up in the collective chatter of what you “should” be doing instead of thinking about what you might actually want. Research says that this is a mistake, especially if you’re trying to commit for the long haul.

There’s a lot of scientific literature that points to intrinsic reward as a motivating factor—that is, an emotional tie to the habit you’re trying to establish. In other words, the key is to pick a form of exercise you actually enjoy, so that you actually feel excited about doing it again and again. That way, it no longer feels like a chore.* (1)

Need some examples? Perhaps you hate running, but you really enjoy a long stroll around your neighborhood with your dog in tow. Or maybe you’d like to get out of your comfort zone, and might consider giving aerial yoga or a dance class a try. Another strategy is to tie it to something you already know you love—like planning a regular weekend hike if you feel at home in nature.

Aim for a process goal rather than an end goal.

Spoiler alert: “Toned abs” or even “running a marathon” aren’t exactly sustainable objectives. These can be categorized as “outcome goals,” and while it’s great to have a big picture feat to work towards, they’re tricky motivators because victory feels so far away.

Instead, start small. Process goals allow us to celebrate wins along the way—which in turn, spurs us to keep going. So, instead of “getting a six-pack,” maybe you try working your way through a plank challenge. Or instead of “running a marathon,” it’s “running for 20 minutes every day this week.” Check it off your list, allow yourself to feel accomplished, and work your way up from there.* (2)

Enlist a buddy.

If you’re struggling to feel excited about getting into shape, the secret might be recruiting a friend to break a sweat with you. Research tells us that there are a lot of reasons why an accountability partner might be beneficial: A friend can offer encouragement when you’re feeling stuck, help you feel more motivated to stay on track, and even inspire a little bit of friendly competition.* (3,4)

Turn up the music.

There really is something about a banging playlist that makes us want to work out harder. Scientists have found that music can serve as a great distraction from the pain and fatigue of exercise, and may even contribute to a modest boost in performance. That said, the right tempo makes all the difference; according to researchers, 120 to 140 beats per minute is a good window to aim for. (FWIW, Spotify has a series of running playlists organized by bpm.)* (5)

Give yourself a pat on the back.

If there’s one takeaway here, it’s that keeping things fun and upbeat can make all the difference—and that includes celebrating every milestone along the way. Even if it feels silly at first, try to applaud every pushup, every mile, every yoga breakthrough. Not just because behavioral scientists tell us to, but because investing in your future is something worth celebrating.*

References:

  1. Brötz, D. (2013). Exercise, Physical Activity, and Self-Determination Theory: A Systematic Review. Physioscience, 9(01), 37–37. doi: 10.1055/s-0032-1330638
  2. Wilson, K., & Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of Goal Setting on Motivation and Adherence in a Six‐Week Exercise Program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 89–100. doi: 10.1080/1612197x.2009.9671894
  3. Pamela Rackow, Urte Scholz, Rainer Hornung. Received social support and exercising: An intervention study to test the enabling hypothesis. British Journal of Health Psychology, 2015; 20 (4): 763 DOI: 10.1111/bjhp.12139
  4. Wilson, K., & Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of Goal Setting on Motivation and Adherence in a Six‐Week Exercise Program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 89–100. doi: 10.1080/1612197x.2009.9671894
  5. Karageorghis, C. I., & Priest, D.-L. (2012). Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part II). International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5(1), 67–84. doi: 10.1080/1750984x.2011.631027

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