The Art of Kick-Starting a Workout Routine That’ll Last

lazy person trying to work out
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

It's about that time of year when most people realize that their New Year's resolution has long since fallen by the wayside. You’re no longer strapping on your sneakers for a jog at 6am; your attempts to abstain from alcohol have woefully failed. But instead of resigning yourself to starting again in 2017, learn how you can find the motivation to get back on track.

Motivation is only the ignition, not the gas pedal

First, it’s important to understand the nature of motivation and its various forms to be able to hack it. To illustrate this, consider two different people: Person A and Person B.
Person A just wants to look good. Scratch that, he wants to look exactly like Thor in The Avengers. He spends most of his time reading about how grow his vanity muscles, makes sure he grunts extra loud at the gym, and swears by a 10-exercise routine just for his biceps. But it takes a lot of effort, and by the time the weekend rolls by, he caves and goes all out on beer, burgers, and buffalo wings. By contrast, Person B barely thinks about his exercise routine. He just likes to go for a run every morning because it boosts his mood for the rest of the day, and he manages to do it pretty consistently.

The main difference, motivation-wise, between the two is that Person A’s sole incentive is his end goal. Realistic or not, he’s pinned all of his efforts on a reward that he can only enjoy once he’s reached the finish line. By contrast, Person B doesn’t even think of the finish line. They’ve focused their effort on a process that continually links their effort with reward (in this case, running and feeling good). This process-driven approach allows them to strengthen their routine into a sustainable habit.

That isn’t to say that looking to Arnie or Jason Statham to kick your ass into gear isn’t helpful. It is. But if motivation is the ignition, habit is the gas pedal that keeps driving you forward. And this is why your New Year’s Resolution motivation probably ran out: you tried to make a cross-country road trip solely powered by your car’s ignition, and not its fuel tank.

To make a successful metaphorical road trip, you need to follow a two-step process:

1. Start the ignition -- i.e. create short-term motivation to get you into the gym.
2. Use that momentum to start creating visible, quantifiable results.

hand holding cup of coffee
Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist

Um, but how do I keep my foot on the gas?

Long-term, sustainable motivation isn’t something that can be manufactured at will. But short-term motivation can be -- and not just by ogling at photos of Gerard Butler’s obliques before your ab session. You can actually generate the physiological changes you need to create short-term motivation by tricking your body into releasing catecholamines, a group of compounds that includes the neurotransmitters epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

The first trick is probably something you do already: caffeinate. Your morning cup of joe engages your body’s sympathetic nervous system -- aka the part that engages your fight-or-flight response -- thereby increasing blood flow to your muscles, releasing more energy, and engaging your cardiovascular system. It also has the added benefit of reducing your perceived effort when exercising, so make sure you down a few cups before hitting the gym.

The second hack is to train yourself to exercise first thing, before you’ve consumed any calories. “But wait, Dick, breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” That’s actually a lie. In fact, skipping breakfast may be more beneficial for your goals because it releases catecholamines and increases your metabolism. If you’re stuck on the feeling that you need to eat as soon as you wake up, keep in mind this is probably just a matter of habit. Try consistently skipping it for a week; this should be enough to realign your hunger cues.

working out, running outside
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Sticking to it

When you’ve finally mustered up the energy to get to the gym and pump out a few workouts, you need to figure out how to stick to it. The easiest way to do this is to pick a program that emphasizes quantifiable results, like Couchto5K or Minimum Viable Fitness.

The reason this is important is because your short-term motivation will inevitably wane, and once it does, it helps to have measurable proof to remind you you’re kicking ass and should keep going. The dopamine hit from reaching new milestones will help you stick to your program in the long run.

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Dick Talens is an entrepreneur, fitness writer, and growth hacker (both users and muscles). Follow his gibberish tweets: @DickTalens.