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Sure, working out is good for us, but what if we’re just not in the mood? As in, totally not in the mood. Is there hope?

Yes. Research shows that even our most slothful selves can get active, stick with the program, and (shocker) enjoy it.

The key is reframing how we think about physical activity. Fitness is usually sold to us as something that will help us live longer and reduce our risk of chronic disease. While this is true and great, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily motivate us in the moment to do pushups instead of downing Doritos. These four approaches work better.

#1 Ask: What will it do for me right now?

Immediate benefits—like relaxation, joy, stress relief, and sharp thinking—are far more motivating than the distant prospect of better health, according to behavioral scientists.

Identify the immediate perks:
a better mood, increased energy, a brainpower boost, stress relief, sharper focus, and positive feelings for yourself.

Play workout music:
For a rapid attitude adjustment, try the latest trap beat.

“I know that even though I never want to start a workout, once I’ve finished I feel happy and empowered.”
—Onyx B., second-year undergraduate, Colorado College

“Realize life is short and you might as well spend it feeling good and alive.”
—Ethan G., second-year undergraduate, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

How & why to focus on the now

“Helping people identify the ways they feel better immediately is the true driver of our decision to be active,” says Dr. Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan. “Research shows that we are more motivated by rewards that we immediately experience than by ones we have to wait for in the future.”

How you work it

“I’ll remember the time I was in a dull meeting and had to run outside to grab something, then how much more alert I felt afterward.”
—Jerome G., third-year undergraduate, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

“When I’m not in the mood to get active, I motivate myself by listening to workout music. I steadily start to get pumped up.”
—Steven M., third-year undergraduate, Michigan Technology University

“Doing cardio, I want to burn the frustration. I think about being in an action movie and I am the lead that needs to save the world from danger.”
—Carla A., third-year undergraduate, Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts

“Running is like therapy to me. I am able to clear my mind of negative thoughts and I also feel better when I done. I breathe more smoothly and am more relaxed.”
—Jessica R., fourth-year undergraduate, Illinois State University

+ Feel the rush of a YouTube dance workout

#2 Mind trick: “This is so not about fitness”

Some physical activities don’t feel like exercise, with its clinical associations. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, many students described fitness as a mind game.

Lose the rules:
“Toss out any rules you might have about how to exercise, because research shows you won’t keep it up [if those rules don’t reflect your feelings],” says Dr. Michelle Segar, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness (Amacom, 2015).

Give yourself permission: 
Move in ways that feel good to you and work with your schedule. “If all you can fit in is an extra five minutes a day, make that your plan and go from there,” says Dr. Segar.

“I trick myself into thinking I am just having fun. Definitely go on a walk through the woods, or four-wheeling, swimming, or even climbing trees!”
—Lexie G., second-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin-Plattville

“I just ride my bike as transportation. That way there is no choice. If you want to go somewhere, you have to be active.”
—Jonathan K., fifth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

Why & how to make it about something else

“When someone hates exercise, I’ve found that they hate it most often because they are [participating] in activities they don’t like, at higher intensities [than they like], or in places they don’t like,” says Dr. Segar. What works? Doing stuff you like, at a pace you like, in places you like.

How you work it

“Walking to a nice (and far away) park or waterfront to read.”
—Elif Su C., fifth-year undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland

“Treat yourself to something special. Take a ride to the beach to watch the sunset. Take the kayak out somewhere you’ve never been to and experience something new. Maybe even catch a fish for dinner.”
—Matthew C., fifth-year undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California

“Sometimes I actively think about how much I don’t want to go for a run while I put my body mindlessly through the actions of starting anyway. I let my mind think it’s talked me out of it, but I keep putting on my shoes and shorts. I might even still be thinking about excuses when I take my first few steps into a warm-up jog, but by then it’s too late and I’ve already started.”
—Onyx B., second-year undergraduate, Colorado College

“Something easy I will do to stop being lazy and sitting around is reorganizing my room or cleaning it. It gets me up and doing something.”
—Second-year undergraduate, name & college withheld

“This is going to sound very silly, but I wake up early every morning to just dance to remixes and rock. This gets my blood pumping.”
—Karen G., third-year undergraduate, St. Joseph’s College, Indiana

#3 Claim a tangible reward

Try associating fitness with a tangible reward. Again, this gets to those immediate benefits. If you’re someone who is motivated to avoid penalties, use that too.

Set a goal and relish the reward:
Maybe it’s only at the gym that you can watch the next episode on Netflix. Maybe you get a smoothie afterwards.

Consider a commitment contract:
“For example, you give money to a friend. If you hit your exercise target, you get the money back, but if you don’t, your friend gets to keep it,” says Dr. Fred Zimmerman, a professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, who researches exercise behavior. “Or the money would be donated to the opposite political party than which you agree or a group you’re not too fond of. This way, missing your goal is painful.”

“I make it a rule that I can only watch a TV show if I’m working out. So if I want to know what’s happening on Game of Thrones I have to be running.”
—Andi L., second-year undergraduate, University of Kansas

Why & how to claim your prize

+ StickK
This free goal-setting platform leverages the power of incentives and accountability; its creators (Yale researchers) say it more than triples your chances of success.

+ Pact
This app pays you when you meet your goals. Fair warning: If you don’t, your money goes to other users who hit theirs. 

Be self-aware about your reward system—e.g., “Watch the revolving door effect if food becomes a reward for exercise,” says Beth Blackett, peer health outreach coordinator at Queen’s University, Ontario.

How you work it

“Listen to an audio book, but only while exercising. Hearing how a story ends is motivating to exercise.”
—Chris P., fifth-year undergraduate, University of Kansas

“The hardest thing to do for me is to work out in the morning. So I would make a rule that if I don’t get out of bed to work out, then I only get to drink water the entire day. Yes, no coffee. :(”
—Second-year undergraduate, name & college withheld

“As humans we love a good prize, so motivate yourself to be active by setting up an award for yourself afterwards, like getting your nails done or watching a movie.”
—Maggie K., second-year undergraduate, Concordia College, Minnesota

“Things that will get me outside start slow and result in physical activity as well as relaxation. I will get a big glass of iced tea and shoot horseshoes or play cornhole.”
—Sterling R., fourth-year undergraduate, Upper Iowa University

Student having fun while exercising

#4 Get with your fit friends

“If our friends work out regularly and support our exercise goals we are more likely to exercise,” says Dr. Xiaomeng Xu, professor of psychology at Idaho State University. Working out in a pair, team, or group introduces cues to action, accountability, and reward.

Make a plan with a friend: Imagine the awkward if you don’t show up.

“Just the other day I didn’t want to go run but I had told my friend that I would run with him. Once I made that commitment I know that I was going to do it no matter what. I hate backing out.”
—Camden S., fifth-year undergraduate, Midwestern State University, Texas

“It’s a lot easier to get off the couch if you know your friends are waiting for you to go on a hike with them!”
—Kelly W., third-year undergraduate, University of Dallas, Texas

Find your people: It helps when your crowd includes some active types.

Watch other people being active:
if not in real life, on TV or online. In our survey, students said they were motivated by images on Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Why & how the buddy system works

In a 2013 study involving 480 college students, “having an exercise partner” and “having a friend who exercises” were rated among the top motivators for physical activity (along with wanting to look physically fit), according to the Archives of Exercise in Health and Disease.

How you work it

“I committed to a softball team. I cannot let others down.”
—Elizabeth D., fourth-year undergraduate, Empire State College, New York

“I look on Instagram and see all my friends posting about working out.”
—Michelle F., fourth-year undergraduate, University of Alaska Anchorage

“I watch ‘People Are Awesome’ videos on YouTube of all the great things people do around the world, usually related to sports and adventure. I get really energetic and excited to get up and try new things.”
—Rajeev I., fourth-year undergraduate, Drexel University, Pennsylvania

“Texting someone about how you’re doubting going to the gym; you invite him or her, and if they say yes, then you have to go. A gym buddy helps.”
—Josie R., fifth-year undergraduate, California State University, Fresno

“I was on the couch and I was looking at Twitter, and some of the people that I follow are all about fitness motivation. Just reading them made me motivated to get off the couch.”
—Kendra S., second-year undergraduate, Concordia College, Minnesota

More ways to make it social

Team up 

Join an intramural team—maybe dodgeball, softball, or bowling.

Shake it out

Find a dance class: hip hop, Zumba®, jazz, break danciong, Bollywood. You know it will be a riot.

Get your quidditch on

  • It started in J. K. Rowling’s fictional wizarding world and has become a legit sport.
    +  Quidditch
  • To act out your favorite characters, try Live Action Role Playing (LARPing)
    + LARP

Conquer life’s obstacles

Does belly crawling through mud sound like your idea of a good time? No? All the more reason to try it. The beginner’s version, a Spartan Sprint, is about three miles long and has more than 20 obstacles (think fire pits and barbed wire). By the end of the course, your new muddy look will be all over Instagram.
+ Spartan Race®

Walk it out 

Walk with a group or on your own. Pass the time by downloading your favorite podcast or audiobook or chatting with a friend.

More than 64 percent of college students engage in moderate cardiovascular or aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes on two or more days a week.
—American College Health Association – National College Health Assessment; September 2014

Your best instagram

Shaney Swank

Metropolitan State University of Denver

“It was basically a giant playground with extra mud. It was easy not to think about it as a workout because there were monkey bars, giant slides, and huge mud baths that just remind you of being a kid!”

Show us how you get active without it feeling like a workout.
Use the hashtags #accidentalfitness and #SH101

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